Maryland's controversial new vehicle emissions program got off to a false start yesterday, as computer and staffing problems delayed the beginning of full-scale testing.
A state legislative committee, meanwhile, dealt the air pollution control program a financial setback when it blocked the Motor Vehicle Administration from doubling the vehicle inspection fee to $17.
The new, tougher tests are being adopted to fight smog, which affects the health of hundreds of thousands in the Baltimore and Washington areas. Congress ordered tougher vehicle emissions checks for some 80 metropolitan areas in 22 states and the District of Columbia.
Maryland's 19 newly constructed testing stations, located in Baltimore and 13 counties, were staffed and equipped yesterday, said W. Marshall Rickert, MVA administrator,
"The physical plant's ready, but operationally they're not," said Mr. Rickert, who is overseeing the emissions program. "I want to work through the bugs before large numbers of customers are inconvenienced." The MVA postponed mailing notices that summon vehicle owners to have their cars or light trucks inspected. The only inspections that occurred yesterday were retests of vehicles that had failed the old tailpipe checks in November, or tests of vehicles that never came in when scheduled last fall, Mr. Rickert said.
He estimated that only a few dozen vehicles were checked yesterday.
The owner of one of those, Doris Toller, passed her test but fumed that she had difficulty finding the new emissions inspection station in East Baltimore, at 5900 Erdman Ave. "This was not well publicized," she said. "I went to three closed emissions stations before someone finally told me about this place."
Signs were supposed to have been placed at the old testing stations, which closed Dec. 31, directing motorists to the new locations. But Mr. Rickert acknowledged that at least a few of those signs were missing. Mr. Rickert said he decided late last week that the new emissions stations built and operated by MARTA Technologies Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., were not ready to begin full-scale inspections. Staff training was incomplete, he explained, and there were problems with the computer systems used at each station to analyze and record vehicle emissions.
"They're still debugging glitches in the computer program, [and] still doing training," the MVA administrator said. "I want smoother operations when I begin larger-scale test activities."
One of the testing station operators said the new machines were working fairly well but were "a little sluggish."
The computer problems are "not catastrophic," Mr. Rickert said, but are frequent enough to slow inspections and aggravate motorists already irritable about having to pay more, wait longer and subject to tough new inspections that their vehicles are more likely to fail.
John P. McGrath, a spokesman for MARTA Technologies, admitted there have been "a few glitches in the technical aspects," but said he expected all the stations to be fully operational shortly. "This is just like starting up any new program with so many locations," Mr. McGrath said. "There are going to be some problems."
Under the state's new emissions testing program, 1.4 million cars and light trucks are subject to inspections every year. The biannual inspections, which include "driving" the vehicle on a treadmill-like device and checking for fuel leaks, are expected to take 10 to 15 minutes, compared with only about two minutes for the old tailpipe checks. As many as one in five vehicles are expected to flunk the new tests, and owners will have to spend up to $250 to repair emissions problems.
The first batch of about 25,000 notices, originally scheduled to be mailed last week, probably will go out Friday, Mr. Rickert said, but only if he is satisfied by then that the stations are ready.
Because of the delay in mailing notices, that group of motorists will have only seven weeks, instead of the usual eight, during which to get their vehicles inspected. But the MVA will not levy a late fee against anyone who misses the deadline because the agency was tardy in sending out testing notices, Mr. Rickert said.
That first batch of vehicle owners also will get a 50 percent discount on the testing fee, thanks to a decision by the Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee of the General Assembly.
In a telephone vote held Dec. 27 but not made public until yesterday, the joint House and Senate panel blocked emergency regulations proposed by the MVA to increase the vehicle emissions inspection fee from $8.50 to $17.
Mr. Rickert said he had notified testing stations to collect only $8.50 from any vehicles brought in for inspection until further notice. That may please motorists, but the lower fee is not enough to recover the costs of building and running the testing stations, Mr. Rickert said. The MVA could raise the fee through the ordinary regulatory process, but that could take months.