Baltimore's unending struggle to keep businesses inside the city limits suffered another setback earlier this year when the state proposed tougher limits on city commuter traffic than on outlying areas of the region.
The aim was to reduce auto-caused ozone pollution, and the central city had the worst problem, with its heavy traffic congestion and tall buildings that trap pollutants in the urban canyons.
The state recently backtracked on that idea, electing to spread the burden equally among all counties in the regional airshed. Now, instead of three different zones and standards, every employer with more than 100 employees in the region will have to increase average commuter vehicle occupancy by one-third of a person. That's the equivalent of one worker in four abandoning his or her single-occupant auto and taking mass transit or joining a carpool to reach work.
The new plan will probably remove less total ozone than the previous proposal. But it is a more equitable scheme and removes at least one bone of contention among city and suburbs and exurbs. That equity should increase its chances of practical implementation.
At the same time, there are serious questions about whether this Employee Commute Options program, in any form, will make much of a difference in the blanket of irritating ozone that forms here in the warmer months. Business people claim the complicated program will cut air pollution by only 2 percent. They have also questioned the state's baseline vehicle-occupancy averages that were erroneously based on where people lived and not where they worked.
Others point out that some of the highest ozone readings in the region are not along commuter routes; but that illustrates the regional scope of dirty air, which is not confined to one area,
rather than denying the automotive origin.
The health hazards of air pollution are real, and auto emissions are still a principal cause of these pollutants, despite significant engineering advances. Reducing commuter traffic in the region will help to cut back pollution (and frayed tempers in rush hour jams) as long as there is a good-faith effort on the part of employers and employees alike.
The state's program still needs to be refined, and probably will be before the reductions are required in 1996. The accommodation of central city employers in revising the planned rules indicates that reasonable adjustments can be made without jeopardizing the federally mandated objective.