“Historically, DEQ rules have been understandable and reasonable. However, new programs have made them complex and challenging.”
That’s one assessment of Oregon’s environmental protection agency offered recently by the Oregon Semiconductor Competitiveness Task Force. Judging by a set of commuting mandates DEQ is rapidly developing, “complex and challenging” may be an understatement, as employers in dozens of small cities across the state may soon discover.
Proposals under consideration would require employers with more than 100 employees (including part-time workers) at one site to develop costly and burdensome trip-reduction plans if they’re located within a city of at least 10,000 residents or one of the state’s metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). Oregon has 68 cities with at least 10,000 residents and eight MPOs. The effects of these rules will be felt by employers and employees not only in densely populated cities like Portland, Salem and Eugene, but also in comparatively rural places like Hermiston, Prineville and Baker City. Especially in smaller cities, employers may soon be asking a question DEQ seems determined to avoid: How much environmental benefit will these costly mandates buy?
The current batch of commute-options proposals would require affected employers to develop commuting plans designed to reduce vehicle trips by at least 10%. To build such plans, employers would choose from a menu of trip-reduction options, each of which would have a numerical value corresponding to its desirability in DEQ’s eyes. Trip-reduction plans offered by smaller employers (101-249 employees per worksite) would have to contain options worth 60 points. Those offered by medium-sized employers (250-1,000 employees) would have to contain 80 points, and so on.
About a dozen items now appear on DEQ’s trip-reduction menu. Employers could earn 10 points for subsidizing e-mobility memberships (electric bikes and scooters) or providing free electric-vehicle charging. They could earn 20 points for offering on-site child care or hiring an employee commute-options coordinator. They could earn 40 points for allowing at least 20% of their workforce to work remotely at least half-time (never mind that few people work remotely 2.5 days in a week). And if they want to go big and earn 50 points? They could eliminate paid parking for employees.
Many of these options, such as providing on-site child care and devoting a position to reducing auto trips, are not economically feasible for employers. Other options discriminate against certain types of industries as well as low-wage employees. Consider two of the big-point options. Rewarding employers for allowing remote work and eliminating paid parking make far more sense in laptop-class industries than they do in, say, manufacturing, which requires most employees to be on site every day. Fortunately, manufacturing jobs pay well. That is less so for many hospitality jobs, yet the room-cleaners, waiters and front-desk personnel who staff hotels can’t work remotely. And the cost of living in even smaller cities is such that many commute, usually without the benefit of robust public transit options. Incentivizing employers to eliminate paid parking is beyond regressive.
Private-sector employers should know that the rules would apply to public employers as well. Schools, city governments, park districts and other agencies would spend what they must to comply with the rules, and the odds are better than zero that businesses would be asked to absorb a tax or fee to cover those compliance costs as well as their own.
To apply such a sweeping and costly mandate to employers in cities across the state, DEQ should be able to point to commensurate environmental benefits. But it can’t. According to DEQ’s own numbers, the Portland metro area, which includes Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, produces 78% more greenhouse gases than all other MPOs combined, which include Salem, Eugene, Medford, Corvallis, Bend and other cities. Especially considering the cost, complexity and regressive nature of the commute options program, DEQ ought to focus its efforts on the Portland metro area, where all the emissions are. That would be the understandable and reasonable thing to do.
To learn more about DEQ’s commute options rulemaking, go here.
To urge DEQ not to apply its commute options rules to employers outside of the Portland metro area and ensure that the rules for metro area employers are workable and effective at a reasonable cost, email Karen Font Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oct. 12, 2022