By Miguel Bustillo
New York Times
The Schwarzenegger administration, working with business groups,
legislators and environmentalists, is promoting an ambitious
anti-smog initiative to eliminate the largest contributors
to dirty air in California heavy-polluting, older model
cars, trucks, buses and farm vehicles.
The plan would cost $200 million to $400 million a year,
and some lawmakers have proposed raising fees on gasoline
and vehicle registration to pay for it. Rising gas prices
threaten to scuttle that proposal, however.
Although the governor has yet to endorse a funding plan,
administration officials are considering numerous options.
They include raising fees, but also a proposal similar
to the check-off system to help finance elections whereby
consumers could voluntarily pay higher vehicle registration
fees and their employers could provide matching funds.
Administration officials say the governor is committed to
finding a way to pay for the initiative, which would significantly
help fulfill a campaign promise to cut California's air pollution
Roughly 5% of the state's cars and heavy-duty buses and trucks,
typically older models, are responsible for half of the air
pollution from motor vehicles, the leading cause of the state's
chronically dirty air, according to air quality officials.
The initiative would seek to remove those vehicles from California's
roads by offering their owners financial incentives to junk
"We need to get the dirtiest cars off the roads and
move to cleaner vehicles," said Terry Tamminen, Schwarzenegger's
environmental protection secretary. The expansion is one of
Schwarzenegger's main environmental priorities, along with
reducing fuel consumption and creating a "hydrogen highway"
of filling stations to help promote the alternative fuel,
"Obviously, we want to generate serious money for this,
but it can't be an economy-buster," Tamminen said. "We
are trying to find some creative ways of doing this. We are
bringing unusual suspects to the table."
Getting older cars off the road is one of the few ways that
California can significantly address motor vehicle pollution,
which is largely regulated by the federal government, environmentalists
and air quality officials noted.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Southern California
air quality officials had overstepped their bounds by enacting
rules that required operators of large vehicle fleets to buy
low-polluting vehicles. The rules were part of an effort by
the local air officials to expand their authority in light
of what they see as an inadequate response to smog by federal
"Everyone seems to be coming to the understanding that
mobile sources (such as cars and trucks) represent 70% of
the smog problem, and we need to do something like this if
we are ever going to deal with that in a real manner,"
said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast
Air Quality Management District, who has taken part in the
negotiations. "The business community is participating
in a very progressive manner, and I am cautiously optimistic
that we will be able to arrive at a consensus."
The recent spike in gas prices, however, could make a one-cent
a gallon wholesale gasoline fee, advocated by some lawmakers,
a tough sell. The Schwarzenegger administration has been involved
in discussions for weeks, but has not declared support for
fee increases proposed by lawmakers. The gasoline fee is opposed
by truckers while car dealers are against a hike in registration
"If we can reach something that all of society thinks
is good, we have a good chance of moving this along,"
said K.C. Bishop, a lobbyist for ChevronTexaco Corp. "The
big problem I see is trying to do this at a time when the
price of gas, especially diesel, is so high. It's the biggest
risk we have in all of this bad timing."
The relatively small $2 vehicle license fee increase
which is important to oil industry representatives, who assert
that consumers should share some of the costs also
could sink the proposal, given the volatility of the car registration
issue in California politics.
"You are making everyone pay for the few who are driving
clunkers," said Brian Maas, director of government affairs
for the California Motor Car Dealers Assn., adding that the
registration fee increase should be placed on the ballot for
voters to consider. "Someone who buys a [hybrid Toyota]
Prius would have to pay more to register their car under this
proposal, which makes no sense.
Groups active in the discussions of the initiative said it
would take a decade to remove grossly polluting vehicles from
the road or fix them. The funding would then be discontinued.
California already has cut harmful exhaust by more than 100,000
tons per year with programs to replace old diesel-powered
school buses, farm equipment and other heavy-duty engines.
But those programs are financed with bonds and will soon run
out of money. The initiative would keep them running. Those
programs have been shown to be a relatively cheap way to cut
air pollution from $6,000 to $15,000 per ton of unhealthful
exhaust compared with $100,000 for similar reductions from
"We still have not reached a consensus on how to pay
for all of this, or what is going to be in the mix, but the
tone of the discussions right now suggests that this could
be an investment of some magnitude," said Bob Lucas,
a lobbyist for the California Council for Environmental and
Economic Balance, a business group. "What we are talking
about is a significantly expanded program that includes not
only diesel but also older gasoline vehicles."
Several lawmakers already are carrying legislation to enact
various pieces of the expansion.
Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) is sponsoring
a bill that would allow local air district officials to raise
vehicle license fees by $2 to help finance air programs, raising
an estimated $45 million annually. A $4 portion of each registration
fee is already allocated to fight air pollution.
Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles) has written a
measure that would raise gasoline prices at the wholesale
level, not the pump, by at least a cent a gallon, which would
generate more than $185 million a year. "Year in and
year out, we have a discussion sometimes a fight
about funding for air pollution programs," he said. "This
time, we have tried to achieve a consensus position that would
take us 10 years into the future.
"I think they have clearly gotten the message from the
administration that this is one of the governor's priority
areas," he said of business groups. "Rather than
being dragged into a fight that they could lose, I think they
are making a good-faith effort to be a part of the solution."