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II. Why resolution matters

Strong incentives and tight targeting of harmful behavior are much more likely to change the behavior fairly and efficiently than weak incentives and loose targeting. The REACH Task Force was not the first group to do a serious comparative study of smog and congestion reduction strategies for Southern California. Caltech's Environmental Quality Lab did some pioneering studies in the 1960's (Caltech EQL, 1972). The California Transportation Commission did a multi-volume study in the 1970's (Eckert, 1979; Elliott, 1986). The South Coast AQMD Advisory Committee, with the help of three major conferences co-sponsored by the AQMD, the California Air Resources Board, and UCLA, and paralleled by a blue-ribbon study panel of environmentalists organized by the Coalition for Clean Air, spent most of the early 1980's studying economic-incentive strategies to control congestion and smog. Among the outcomes were RECLAIM, the AQMD's tradable emissions permit market; California Assembly Bill 680, authorizing what is now the Route 91 HOT-lane project; and provisions in the Federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 encouraging the use of pricing incentives for transportation and smog control. In 1994 the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board published a two-volume study of congestion charges (NRC, 1994), and the Environmental Defense Fund published an analysis of strategies for unsnarling traffic in Southern California (Cameron, 1994). Since then, the California Air Resources Board has commissioned a very ambitious study of transportation pricing strategies for California, advance copies of which (CARB, 1995) were made available to the REACH Task Force.

More often than not the study groups started out with a strong bias in favor of simple, low-resolution strategies (such as taxing dirty cars or setting up a clean-air trust fund) which looked politically palatable at first glance. But in every case they wound up recommending more complex, high-resolution strategies (such as emissions or congestion charges) which seemed much less palatable at first glance, but offered far more long-run workability at lower cost. The REACH Task Force followed just this course, leaving many lower-resolution strategies -- flat gas taxes; flat VMT (vehicle-miles-traveled) charges; parking charges; dirty car sales or ownership charges, and Rule 2202, the South Coast AQMD's employer rideshare mandate -- on the cutting room floor. It settled ultimately on emission and congestion charges as the most inviting strategies for further action because these are tightly targeted on the most harmful behavior and don't put unnecessary burdens on harmless behavior. Even a mid-resolution strategy of emissions-weighted, pay-at-the-pump imputed VMT charge, though carefully researched and evaluated by consultants Wilbur Smith Associates (WSA), did not make it to the Task Force's final recommendations because its charges could not be made time-specific, and, hence, could offer almost no help in congestion relief.

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