The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

New, pricier car inspections start today

By Daniel Mottola, September 2, 2005, News

Another anti-smoking law – one that outlaws smoke coming out of your car's tailpipe – is set to take effect today, Sept. 1. The AirCheck Texas vehicle emissions testing and repair program, accompanied by the Drive Clean Across Texas PR blitz, is part of an effort to get statewide air quality out of the red. If Texas adds to the nine areas very close to or currently breaching the Clean Air Act, the state's federal highway funding could disappear. So 12 local governments – including the counties of Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop, and Caldwell – have entered into an Early Action Compact to head off trouble with the feds, while hoping to avoid being labeled a clean-air nonattainment region. As part of the compact, these 12 governments are voluntarily initiating up to eight air quality measures, including idling restrictions on heavy trucks, limits on certain industrial chemicals, greater pollution controls at local power plants, and in Travis and Williamson counties, vehicle emissions testing.

The yearly inspections target gasoline-powered vehicles from 2 to 24 years old, the source of about 60% of the region's ozone-forming pollutants according to officials. For cars built before 1995, a two-speed idling tailpipe test, something akin to having the car's rectal temperature taken, will measure emissions. In models 1996 and newer, inspectors will plug into a vehicle's on-board diagnostic computer to determine if it's running clean. The 15-minute test will run $16 in addition to the $12.50 cost of the current safety inspection, for a total of $28.50. Owners of failing vehicles have 15 days to repair the problem, described on a Vehicle Inspection Report given to each driver, and can have the vehicle retested for free at the same station. On the report, drivers will also find an application for the Low Income Repair & Replacement Assistance Program, which can provide up to $600 for repairs or $1,000 toward replacing vehicles deemed beyond repair. Only vehicles registered in Travis or Williamson counties are eligible, and aid is available to those earning below 200% of the federal poverty level – that's $19,140 for singles or $38,700 for a family of four.

Planners estimate that the Early Action Compact will reduce 4,178 tons per year of NOx emissions and 6,054 tons per year of VOC emissions, the two main components of smog. Ramone Alvarez of Environmental Defense said AirCheck Texas is an "important component of the region's multipronged effort to reduce air pollution. It's not the silver bullet, but it will have a significant impact." Richard Goldsmith of the TxDOT Environmental Affairs division said, "one individual changing their habits is immeasurable, but many individuals will have a noticeable effect." He added, "Texas is the first and only state conducting a public air quality awareness campaign addressing mobile source emissions."

But the Texas Libertarian Party has rallied against AirCheck Texas since 2003, when planners began presenting it to local governments for their approval. "It's expensive, and its not going to do anything," said Steve Ravet, chair of the party's transportation committee. He says the program neglects to test diesels, the dirtiest part of the vehicle pool, and puts an undue burden on individuals, often those with low incomes, even though much of Austin's pollution blows in from places like Houston. Asked about the plan's low-income assistance provisions, Ravet said, "Libertarians are opposed to the transfer of wealth," referring to the $2 of the $16 emissions testing fee that funds the program. The party favors "putting the burden where it belongs," on industry and 18-wheelers. Ravet gave the San Marcos City Council credit for deciding to strike down AirCheck Texas, canceling it throughout Hays Co.

Austin air quality advocate Scott Johnson said Hays County's absence will hurt the program's effectiveness. He supports AirCheck Texas but agrees that more emissions can be reduced by continuing to tune power plants, by reducing energy demand, and by using more clean alternatives like Austin Energy's GreenChoice and solar programs. Still, he said, "the largest source of emissions are on-road vehicles." He sees the next step in emission reductions coming from idling restrictions for heavy equipment, such as road construction machinery, but he admits that such measures will be hard to enforce. In defense of AirCheck Texas, Travis Co. air quality project manager Scheleen Walker said, "We were tasked to do something locally to address air pollution … vehicle inspection is the only program that has shown measurable results elsewhere."

For more info on the emissions inspections, see; get fuel-saving, pollution reduction tips at Travis County's AirCheck Texas Repair and Replacement Assistance Program's number is 267-0301.

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