After surviving its own treadmill of political debate and performance problems for nearly three years, a stricter vehicle emissions test is about to become mandatory in Maryland.
Drivers, here's fair warning: Beginning Wednesday, the first 25,000 notices will start showing up in the mail summoning cars and light trucks to one of 19 state-owned centers for required dynamometer testing.
Unlike the traditional tailpipe test, which has been standard in Maryland since 1984, cars will be driven on a treadmill by an attendant. The $12 test detects far more pollutants than the old one, and failing cars likely will face more expensive repairs.
But here is the good news: An expected 55 fewer tons of pollutants will be spewed into the air each day by the time all 2.1 million eligible vehicles have undergone the biennial test in the next two years.
The American Lung Association has been touting that benefit in an Environmental Protection Agency-financed $150,000 radio and television advertising campaign that started last week.
"This is the single biggest thing we can do to reduce air pollution in Maryland," said Ronald E. Lipinski of the Maryland Department of the Environment. "It gives us the biggest bang for the buck."
The test won't be a completely new experience for drivers, who have had the option of taking the treadmill test since August last year. Thanks to a $2 discount ticket -- and the promise of a free tailpipe test if the vehicle fails -- more than 500,000 dynamometer tests have been performed.
That has helped MARTA Technologies Inc., the Nashville, Tenn. based company that runs the test, work out glitches, including balky comput-er software, sometimes-rude employees and long waits that beset the program in its early days. Last week, state officials confidently predicted widespread public acceptance of the tests.
"We will test about 1.2 million cars a year, so we've already done the equivalent of nearly half of that," said Anne S. Ferro, head of the Motor Vehicle Administration. "This will be a smooth transition."
Much remains at stake in the program -- and not only the predicted reduction in volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to the Baltimore-Washington region's choking summer smog and pump excessive nitrogen into the Chesapeake Bay.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening vetoed legislation this year that would have kept the treadmill test strictly voluntary. It was a move that delighted health advocates and environmental groups, but it could harm the Democrat's re-election chances next year if the public is less than thrilled with the results.
"People are still very upset with this. It's a sleeping giant," said Del. Martha S. Klima, a Baltimore County Republican and treadmill test opponent. "When the election comes around, we'll be reminding people of this, and the governor is going to suffer."
Three years ago, as the state first geared up for mandatory treadmill tests, a public furor erupted that led the legislature to delay the program. At the time, Maryland was set to be the first state to impose the tougher emissions standard.
That's no longer the case. Florida, Arizona, Colorado, California, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio conduct the tests. Pennsylvania's program is to start the same day as Maryland's. Problems getting necessary equipment in place caused Virginia officials to postpone last week their test's start-up date from Oct. 9 to Dec. 1.
At the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program (VEIP) testing station on Erdman Avenue in East Baltimore last week, employees found most drivers were open to the new test, if begrudgingly so in some cases.
"I don't have any qualms about it at all," said Bill Kight, 39, of Middle River, who volunteered to have a 1992 Toyota truck tested on the treadmill. "I'm an outdoorsman. If it helps the environment, I'm for it."
But that could change once repair bills become due. Officials expect the failure rate to rise from 7 percent to 8 percent under the old test to 10 percent to 12 percent, while average repair costs to correct failing cars will likely double to $150.
Some drivers also are reluctant to surrender their car to a stranger who will drive it at highway speeds in a test that could last four minutes. To counter that problem, car owners are given the option of riding along, and official "greeters" have been hired to explain the process.
"Although it's a nuisance, it doesn't seem that bad," said a 40-year-old Perry Hall woman who called in sick from work to have her 1992 Toyota Camry tested on the Erdman treadmill. "Maybe next time, they could visit my house."
The dynamometer tests have not been without mishap. Claims have been paid for 166 cars damaged by the process, with an average payout of $50 for scuffed tires or scratched hubcaps, the most common complaints. The largest claim has been $4,000 to fix the transmission of a four-wheel-drive sports car erroneously tested without putting the rear wheels on rollers.