Smoke and Mirrors (and more smoke)

It's called "Motorist's Choice." But the new emissions testing program for Houston may not offer much of a choice after all. And it won't do much for cleaning the city's air, either.

Tim Hogan tugs at the curled brim of his camouflage cap, his hands remarkably grime-free for a mechanic who runs a busy auto-repair shop. But it's early yet, and along with his father and other employees of AH&H Enterprises, Hogan will eventually blacken his mitts under a hood.

Hogan's not your average mechanic. He's an innovator who keeps abreast of the latest high-tech developments in the automotive world, and he's as comfortable discoursing on the composition of car exhaust and how to keep it clean as he is telling you what's wrong with your engine. For a layman, following his observations on gas analyzers, oxides of nitrogen and dynamometers is no easy task, but one point is clear: he's one of the few people in the Houston area who was truly sorry to see the city's emissions testing program collapse a year ago.

In response to Environmental Protection Agency mandates to clean up the city's air, the state spent much of 1994 preparing to test every registered vehicle in Harris and surrounding counties and make owners fix those that exceeded the spew limit. But shortly after the start of a trial run, the testing program was caught in a late-breaking public backlash fanned by talk radio's Jon Matthews and seized upon by state Senator John Whitmire, both of whom painted it as a classic big-government intrusion that would cause major inconvenience while doing little to ease pollution. With Whitmire leading the legislative attack, the program was suspended within a month of its official debut and was eventually scrapped altogether.

Now the state is back with a new testing program, dubbed "Motorist's Choice" by Governor George W. Bush and the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, which will administer it. Scheduled to begin next January 1, the new testing program, at least according to its advance billing, will achieve the same clean-air goals as the old one, yet hardly register on the inconvenience meter.

Tim Hogan has a different opinion.
"It's gonna be a joke," he says.
For one thing, Hogan argues, the notion that motorists will have more choice under the new program is an illusion: while the number of emissions test sites will expand, the available options for the obligatory state safety inspection are expected to dramatically shrink. Not only that, but Motorist's Choice will force car owners to take an emissions test annually instead of every other year, and it will cost consumers more -- $13 a year instead of $23 every two years under the discarded plan. And the same public furor that led to the demise of the first testing program could well come back to haunt Motorist's Choice. Most people, Hogan says, thought the issue was dead last year and are in for a rude surprise when inspection time comes.

"They still have no idea that something's fixing to hit 'em right in the butt," he says.

But worst of all, the new program won't do what it's supposed to do -- put a serious dent in Houston's smog. Hogan believes the plan won't stand up to EPA review, even though the agency has recently relaxed its standards under political pressure. If so, the city and state could face costly economic sanctions from the feds.

According to Hogan and other skeptics, the Motorist's Choice program has more to do with public relations than cleaning the air. Even as the state touts the program as a painless palliative, Bush and the TNRCC have been pushing for a rewrite of state and federal regulations to fix Houston's problem, at least on paper. Late last year, for example, TNRCC Commissioner Ralph Marquez argued in Washington for changes in the ozone standard that would make it easier for Houston and other Texas cities to pass EPA muster.

John Stieb has a handy reply for every question raised about Motorist's Choice. The director of the mobile source division of TNRCC's office of air quality, Stieb has been crisscrossing the state as the program's frontman since Bush unveiled it in November. He predicts Houston will accept the new program, especially after the intensive public awareness campaign the agency is putting together.

Stieb maintains the new program will be just as effective in reducing pollution as the old one would have been. He says the state will submit numbers to the EPA in March to show the plan will work, and he dismisses the federal agency's negative assessments of similar programs elsewhere. "We don't believe the studies EPA has conducted in other states," Stieb says. "We think they're flawed."

The argument over the program, based on complex computer models, measurements in parts per billion and other hypertechnical details, means little to the average Houston resident. Much easier to grasp is the fact that smog levels in the city rank among the worst in the country, and the resulting effects, including increases in asthma and other respiratory ailments, extract a staggering cost.

But linking causes, effects and solutions is a very tricky business. Because smog has many sources beside car and truck exhaust, and because the calculations have so many variables, determining whether Motorist's Choice works will be a coin toss even after it's been in place awhile. "It's impossible to really measure its effectiveness," says Neil Carman, who directs the state Sierra Club's clean air program and spent 12 years as a Texas air-quality inspector.

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