State eyes purchase of emissions-test stations Transportation officials considering the move because of tougher federal clean-air standards.

July 29, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS — An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun and The Evening Sun incorrectly named the company that runs Maryland's emissions testing stations. The firm that has run the program since its inception in 1984 was purchased in April and renamed Envirotest Technologies Inc.

The Sun regrets the errors.

ANNAPOLIS -- Complying with new federal clean-air standards has become such an expensive and lasting problem that Maryland officials said yesterday they are considering buying into the emissions-testing business.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

State transportation officials proposed having a private firm build 18 to 20 new testing stations needed to meet the federal standards, and then purchasing the stations at a cost of up to $60 million.

The new stations would be larger and have more sophisticated testing equipment than the 10 now in use. Those stations are owned by Systems Control Inc., which has run Maryland's emissions-testing program since its inception in 1984.

Under its deal with the state, Systems Control gets to keep $6.50 of every $8.50 fee paid for inspections, which currently amounts to more than $7 million a year.

W. Marshall Rickert, motor vehicle administrator, said that if the state owns the stations it will be in a better bargaining position down the road when it seeks a new contract for emissions testing. When System Control's contract expired in 1988, it was the only company to bid for the new contract, he noted.

"Sometime before the end of the decade, there will be a second bid to operate the facilities and testing program," he said. "We will be in a much stronger position if we own the facilities." Under the new standards, Maryland's every-other-year testing program would be expanded from eight to 14 jurisdictions. Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties already are in the program. Calvert, Cecil, Charles, Frederick, Queen Anne's and Washington counties would be added.

The new tests will double the cost to motorists. The current $8.50 inspection fee would probably rise to something in the $15 to $20 range, Mr. Rickert said. Part of that fee would help recover the cost of building the new stations and pay off the bonds. In addition, the amount drivers must spend to fix cars that fail -- now capped at $75 -- would rise annually and eventually reach $450. The state plans to raise the cap gradually, starting at $150 in 1995 and going up $100 a year after that.

Members of a legislative oversight committee who were briefed on the expanded testing program yesterday expressed concerns, and some members of budget committees that would have to authorize such an expenditure said they knew nothing about the proposal.

"I haven't heard anything about it," said Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery.

Sen. Mary H. Boergers, also D-Montgomery, said she was worried the Transportation Department had not done a thorough financial analysis comparing private and public ownership of the stations. "We shouldn't be held hostage by the one vendor, but I can't imagine coming out with this proposal without doing a good fiscal analysis," she said.

Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the transportation budget, was more positive. "It is pretty clear to us, based on changes in federal law, that we're going to be in the [testing] business forever," he said. "The question is: Do we want to be owners or renters. I think we want to be owners, if we can afford it."

But Mr. Maloney and members of the oversight committee said they were concerned that a request for bids that contemplates state ownership of the stations had been issued even though the subject has never been addressed by the legislature.

Stephen G. Zentz, deputy secretary of transportation, said the department envisions the winning bidder designing the new stations, acquiring the land, constructing and equipping the buildings, and then selling the stations to the state.

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