Angry Atlanta bankers are trying to put the brakes on a smog-fighting proposal to close drive-through lanes at banks, fast-food restaurants, and other businesses on summer days when air quality is poor.

"I cannot imagine the City Council doing something like this," said Julian Hester, president and chief executive officer of the Community Bankers Association of Georgia. "I can see no reasonable justification [for limiting drive-through service]. It is totally ridiculous to even think about this."

Banking officials say such restrictions would place an undue burden on people driving with young children in the car, as well as the elderly and handicapped.

But some City Council members say the limits would help improve the city's poor air quality.

May marks the start of a long, hot summer of smog for Atlanta. In 1999, the city's pollution exceeded federal air quality standards 69 times - all between May 3 and Sept. 25 - according to a Web site maintained by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

City Councilwoman Debi Starnes said her proposal would close drive-through lanes from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. "during the days we are all choking to death." Her proposal would tie closing days to ozone readings, though details of how the drive-through ban would be implemented have not been worked out.

"I see no reason people cannot get out of their cars and walk into their banks," said Ms. Starnes. "I do not see what possible permanent impact this [bill] would have on the banks. They are not going to lose customers because all of them will be affected."

The summer closing debate is not new to Atlanta. Just last week, the City Council rejected by a 10-5 vote a proposal that would have shut down drive-through lanes altogether from May 1 through Sept. 30. A similar bill also was presented but failed in a November 1998 vote.

If Ms. Starnes' bill becomes law, Atlanta would become the first major city in the country to limit use of drive-through lanes. But it would hardly be the first time that banks found themselves caught in the middle of a public policy debate that is not finance-related. For example, many states have public safety laws that require bank to provide adequate lighting, landscaping, and other safety features at automated teller machines.

Eugene S. Putnam Jr., a spokesman for the $23 billion-asset SunTrust Banks Inc., which has 17 Atlanta branches, said SunTrust opposes any proposal that would inconvenience customers.

"With all due respect to clean air, limiting consumers' choice of how they do their banking is not something we would be interested in supporting," said Mr. Putnam.

Banks have already restricted drive-through lanes to depositors with simple, quick transactions in order to reduce the time motorists spend in them, Joe Brannen, president of the Georgia Bankers Association, said in remarks to the City Council before their May 15 vote.

While the drive-through restrictions are aimed at all businesses, not just banks, "they affect banking pretty dramatically," said Mr. Hester, noting that every bank in the city closes by 7 p.m. And though the previous bill was defeated soundly, at least one banker said he is worried that some City Council members may reverse course when they vote next month on the less restrictive bill.

"Any time one person, much less five, votes for something like this, it is a cause for concern," said George Andrews, president and chief executive officer Capitol City Bank and Trust, a $57 million-asset bank with four branches in Atlanta. "I just hope enough rational people vote against" Ms. Starnes' revised drive-through bill.

Ms. Starnes admitted that her proposal falls far short of a comprehensive solution to Atlanta's air-quality woes, but the two-term councilwoman called it a first step.

"This is chiseling away at the elements of a comprehensive plan," said Ms. Starnes. "Everyone says they want clean air, but each time we propose something, the people who are affected object."

Atlanta's City Council is scheduled to meet on June 5, and Ms. Starnes said she will spend the next two weeks building support for her bill. But bankers can take comfort that some council members remain on their side.

"I know we have to take some steps to deal with the environment," said Councilwoman Mabel Thomas, who voted against the earlier bill. "But we should be looking for comprehensive solutions, not ones that adversely affect selected industries."


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