Auto Inspections in Central Texas?

Auto Inspections in Central Texas?

If you live in Austin or Round Rock, or anywhere in Travis or Williamson Counties, you may not yet realize that local planners (including elected officials) want you to pay $20 more a year at the auto inspection station – that’s $32.50 including the safety inspection. But are they asking you to pay too much – or too little?

Motorists in Hays County, thanks to a vote by the San Marcos City Council, for now will escape the extra cost and hassle of emissions inspections, as will motorists in the San Antonio area. Planners in both areas are gambling that other measures will be sufficient to ward off violations of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ground-level ozone. Nonattainment status would trigger tougher air quality measures as well as sanctions that could hurt economic growth.

The Capital area proposal, now before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for approval, includes an annual two-speed idle tailpipe test for older vehicles (model years 1995 and older, up to 24 years old) and a check of the onboard diagnostics system for newer vehicles at least 2 years old. Remote sensing equipment would also identify polluting vehicles for additional testing at an inspection facility. Vehicles failing the tests would be subject to repairs and retesting.

Capital area planners opted against using the more intensive acceleration simulation mode (ASM) testing, even though the technology, used in the Houston-Galveston and Dallas-Fort Worth nonattainment areas, would be more effective in fighting ozone pollution.

Their reasoning, according to Cathy Stephens of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, was that the ASM testing equipment costs about $42,000, three times the initial cost of equipment needed for the two-speed idle and onboard diagnostics tests. To explain these terms:

Two-speed idle (TSI) testing uses a tachometer and probe to measure tailpipe exhaust emissions while the vehicle idles at two different speeds. This test does not identify oxides of nitrogen, a key component in ozone formation.

Onboard diagnostics (OBD) uses a vehicle’s factory-installed computer system to monitor the performance of its emissions control equipment, fuel metering system, and ignition system to detect malfunctions or deterioration in performance that would be expected to cause the vehicle not to meet emission standards. It does not directly measure tailpipe emissions, but identifies by code what repairs or maintenance needs to be done to the vehicle to achieve optimum performance.

Acceleration simulation mode (ASM) testing uses a dynamometer (a set of rollers on which a test vehicle’s tires rest) to apply an increasing load or resistance to the drive train of a vehicle, thereby simulating actual tailpipe emissions of the vehicle as it is moving and accelerating. This test identifies hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides.

Remote sensing uses a stationary vehicle outfitted with special equipment that can detect emissions of vehicles operating on public roadways. High-polluting vehicles so identified are subject to inspection at a testing facility.

It is hard to explain just why Alamo area planners rejected any emissions testing program, while Capital area planners opted for the cheaper of two alternatives. Modeling says that the program would be more effective in San Antonio than in Austin in cutting air pollution – 10.42 tons per day of combined hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides compared with 6.73 tons per day. In both areas, these emissions reductions are expected to lower ozone levels by less than half a part per billion, which might (or might not) be enough to keep the communities out of nonattainment status.

In both areas, the dynamometer test would produce greater emission reductions and a larger drop in ozone levels. It would also cost a few dollars more. Motorists in the Dallas and Houston areas are paying $39.50 for the combined safety and emissions inspection – an extra $7 per year per vehicle.

Austin and Round Rock are gambling that the extra dollars for the dynamometer tests and test equipment would be overkill. San Antonio is relying on models that show a steady decline in ozone levels in the area even without vehicle inspections. Both areas have other projects in the works that will help bring or keep ozone levels down, according to the models.

Austin is also relying on the fact that 80% of all vehicles in the area will be subject only to onboard diagnostics by 2007. Modeling predicts that 80% of all emissions reductions from the testing program will come from these newer vehicles. One Austin official admitted that the two-speed idle test was included in the program mainly to avoid an outcry by owners of newer cars.

No one questions the right of local planning groups to choose the measures they will undertake to fight ozone pollution. Former TCEQ Chairman Robert Huston, who during his tenure had urged communities to requires the dynamometer test (a “superior” technology), nevertheless “respects the spirit of local development of clean air plants that work.”

But some question the evidence upon which the local decisions have been made. Ed Martin of the Texas State Inspectors Association says that test records from a number of states indicate the onboard diagnostics equipment for model years 1996 to 1998 is too unreliable to ensure accurate results. He also says that the proposed $20 fee does not take into account the cost of annual upgrades and updates for onboard diagnostics equipment. Over time, those costs make the dynamometer test more competitive in price than has been represented.

In essence, Martin is saying that the dynamometer test would produce far superior improvements in air quality at only a slightly higher price. That is, unless the plan is to introduce the inspection program, then kill it off after the 2007 ozone season if the area keeps its “attainment” classification.

But what if the testing program is not needed at all, as San Antonio and Hays County believe? All of central Texas is already using pollution-cutting low-sulfur gasoline ahead of the federal timetable for its introduction. New low-pollution “Tier 2” passenger cars and light trucks are on the way soon, as are low-sulfur (low-polluting) diesel fuel and diesel engines. Once these technological upgrades take hold, the air in central Texas (and just about everywhere else in the U.S.A.) will surely get better.

In the shorter run, both the Capital and Alamo areas have proposed other measures that are likely to keep them out of nonattainment status (depending on the weather and other unknowable factors) even without a vehicle inspection program. Maybe, if it were put to a vote, even Austin and Round Rock motorists would prefer to take baby steps of their own (such as turning off their motors while waiting in line at the drive-in or their children’s schools) to help in the fight for clean air.

There is another viewpoint that suggests central Texans should submit to vehicle inspection and maintenance programs regardless of whether they are needed to meet the arbitrary federal standards. Well-tuned vehicles not only pollute the air less, they also burn less fuel. Any repairs mandated by a testing program will likely pay for themselves in extended vehicle life and lower fuel costs.

So, should Austin and Round Rock upgrade to the higher testing level, or find other ways to reduce air pollution that might get more bang for the buck? Should San Marcos and San Antonio join the party or stay the course?

Folks, it’s our money that our representatives are proposing to have us spend. The public comment period on the two areas’ clean air plans is coming soon. The time, therefore, is now to study up on the two plans, look around for other ways to clean the air that might cost a little less, and decide whether the dime’s worth of difference is too much for you to spend.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Environmental Insider News

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group