The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Locals Ready to OK Air Plan

By Mike Clark-Madison, March 26, 2004, News

Austin and Central Texas passed another milestone this week in the region's effort to avoid nonattainment of federal air quality standards, with the approval by the Travis Co. Commissioners Court on Tuesday, and the expected approval by the Austin City Council today (Thursday), of a final Clean Air Action Plan to submit to state and federal regulators. The CAAP is the fruit of the Early Action Compact, an agreement between local governments, the state, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that commits the Austin metro area to meeting stricter federal ozone standards by 2007 but allows the region to craft and adopt its own strategies for doing so.

There are 13 "key emission reduction measures" in the CAAP, which has been in development for about 18 months, with several rounds of public hearings, citizen surveys, and other feedback. The measures range from idling restrictions on heavy-duty diesel engines (such as construction equipment), to trip-reduction and alternative-commuting programs for local employers, to requiring more gas stations to install vapor-recovery nozzles, to reducing emissions from local power plants. (These are on top of measures already in place at the local, state, and federal levels.) So far, the only controversial item is "vehicle inspection and maintenance" – that is, tailpipe emissions testing – which city staffers say will get "the biggest reductions in on-road emissions, our major emissions source."

Other metro areas in the state, including Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, and El Paso, that are already in nonattainment and thus subject to the strict requirements of the federal Clean Air Act, have mandated tailpipe testing, overseen by the Texas DPS along with the traditional vehicle safety inspection program; under the CAAP, Travis, Hays, and Williamson counties, and their respective largest cities, would be asked to opt into the existing DPS program. Five of those jurisdictions are ready to go along, but the city of San Marcos was not, and as a result San Marcos and Hays Co. will have to come up with other strategies for reducing emissions to meet the 2007 targets.

San Marcos was swayed, in part, by the vocal and persistent opposition to tailpipe testing by local Libertarians, especially longtime Lib leader Vincent May, who has filled local politicos' e-mail boxes with detailed objections, prompting equally detailed ripostes from the air-quality planners. One of the major complaints is, in fact, a facet of tailpipe testing that the planners think is an asset: A program would (in city staff's words) "spread the cost of reductions to the entire vehicle-owning public, which results in a reasonable per capita cost." The aggregate cost of tailpipe testing is expected to be more than $30 million a year, which staff says works out to about $20 per inspected vehicle. (Cities and counties may opt to participate in the existing state program to offset the cost for low-income drivers.) But the opposition has noted that this means the 95% of drivers (their estimate) whose cars do not pollute excessively are being penalized.

While the back-and-forth of statistics and data on tailpipe testing has begun to wear on local decision-makers, public resistance to the program is not in dispute; the San Antonio metro area, which also has an early-action compact, backed away from adopting tailpipe testing as one of its control measures in the face of citizen complaints. But the Austin air-quality planners argue that, given the metro area's general lack of high-pollution manufacturing, and the existence already of commitments to reduce what "point-source" pollution we already see, controlling on-road emissions is the only realistic way to stay out of nonattainment. If the CAAP is accepted by the state and feds, tailpipe testing would begin in Austin some time in 2005.

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