State delays new test for car exhaust

January 07, 1995|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Peter Jensen contributed to this article.

The state Motor Vehicle Administration yesterday postponed the start-up of its controversial auto emissions tests for several weeks at least.

The decision was announced by MVA Administrator W. Marshall Rickert Jr., who blamed the delay on continuing computer problems at the 19 testing stations in Baltimore and 13 counties.

Tens of thousands of motorists are affected, since the MVA had planned to start mailing notices yesterday to about 25,000 owners a week, summoning them for inspections of cars, sport-utility vehicles and light trucks.

"It's not going to start until we're satisfied we can give a quick and accurate test," Mr. Rickert said. The delay probably will amount to "a matter of weeks, not months," he said.

In addition to computer problems, the program faces mounting political opposition and a legal challenge. Legislation is being drafted to relax or drop the tests, and a lawsuit has been filed in Baltimore seeking to block the program.

The tough new inspections stem from federal orders to reduce smog and are more complex and time-consuming than the tailpipe exhaust checks performed in Maryland for the past decade.

Testing was scheduled to start Tuesday but never got rolling because computer and staffing difficulties at the stations caused the MVA to delay mailing the first batch of notices.

Mr. Rickert said yesterday that staffing no is longer a problem, but there are "bugs" in the computer software that analyzes each vehicle's tailpipe exhaust and emission controls.

"They're making progress, but I'm not confident they can sustain operations," he said.

The only inspections performed this week were re-tests of several dozen vehicles that had failed the simpler tailpipe checks last fall, officials said. Some of those autos could not be tested because of computer breakdowns, so they were automatically "passed" for a two-year period.

The inspection stations were built and are operated by MARTA Technologies Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., under a $98 million contract with the state. Telephone calls to MARTA's Tennessee and Maryland offices were not returned.

The state already has paid MARTA more than $40 million for construction of the testing stations and can withhold further payments for failure to make the stations operational. Mr. Rickert did not say if MARTA would be penalized. He said he was more interested in getting the stations running.

In Texas, which began the new "high-tech" inspections in four urban areas Jan. 2, an official said the testing generally had gone smoothly at 54 sites in the Dallas, Houston and Beaumont areas. But a major delay occurred in El Paso, where MARTA operates four stations.

"If MARTA can't demonstrate they can run the test by Jan. 16, our opening will be delayed until March," John Steib of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission said of the El Paso program.

In Maryland, the program caused a furor even before the scheduled start-up, as motorists balked at the prospect of under-the-hood checks and technicians "driving" vehicles on treadmill-like dynamometers at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour.

Several other states have rebelled against the new inspection program prescribed by the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA officials, after initially threatening to withhold millions of dollars in highway construction funds, have agreed to let states modify or even drop vehicle emission checks.

Maryland scaled back the inspection program last month, reducing by 43 percent the number of vehicles subject to the dynamometer tests.

The General Assembly convenes Wednesday, and leaders of a key committee say they want the MVA to delay the new testing indefinitely to allow legislative review of possible changes.

"I've gotten more messages [from constituents] on this thing than any issue since I've been in political office," said Del. John S. Arnick, a Democrat from Baltimore County. Mr. Arnick is co-chairman of the Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee, a joint House-Senate panel that oversees state regulatory programs.

The committee already has blocked the Motor Vehicle Administration's plan to charge $17 for the new inspections, twice the cost of the old smog checks.

Democratic State Sen. John A. Pica Jr. of Baltimore, the panel's co-chairman, vowed to summon motor vehicle officials for a re-examination of the testing program. "At a minimum, we should make every attempt to reduce the inconvenience to the public," he said.

Meanwhile, a Dundalk caterer, Russell Mirabile, has filed suit in Baltimore Circuit Court to block the program, contending that the inspection amounts to an unconstitutional search and seizure of a citizen's vehicle. "This is going to be a very costly program for the taxpayers," said Mr. Mirabile, whose 1978 van failed the old emissions test last fall.

An unsuccessful Republican candidate for state Senate last year, Mr. Mirabile said he filed the suit Dec. 30 "because a lot of legislators are just talking about it. I want something done about it."

A hearing date has not been scheduled for the case.

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