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.

And while the state must submit its emissions-testing program to the EPA by March 21, it has until the year 2007 to reduce actual ozone levels, as opposed to the computer-projection kind.

Which is why Carman and others believe the Motorist's Choice program is more about buying time and playing politics than cutting smog.

"There's a political agenda behind the whole thing," he says. "I think it's all smoke and mirrors."

Business and industry supported it. The TNRCC backed it, as did environmentalists. It met EPA guidelines. Even the politicians voted for it. With such a rare coalition in its corner, the Texas plan to clean up auto emissions seemed fail-safe.

Known as I/M 240 (inspection and maintenance, 240 seconds to complete the test), the program relied on the latest technology and scientific theory to reduce autos' contribution to ozone, a harmful gas created when various chemicals react with sunlight. Every registered vehicle in Harris and surrounding counties -- more than three million -- was to take the test, which would be good for two years. If the program worked as intended, the Houston area could expect a reduction of 34 tons of ozone-producing exhaust every day, a small but significant chunk of the estimated 1,144 tons belched into the air from all sources.

I/M 240 wasn't born of thin air. Growing out of the federal Clean Air Act of 1990, the program was part of a broader plan to mitigate serious problems with ozone pollution in Houston, Dallas and other cities. In Houston's case, the EPA required an initial 15 percent decrease from various sources -- cars, refineries and other heavy industry, and small businesses with high emissions such as dry cleaners -- to avoid penalties, which included a freeze of federal highway funds and limits on industrial expansion. Further rollbacks would follow until ozone fell to more acceptable levels.

Which would take some doing. In the United States, only Los Angeles has a more acute ozone problem than Houston's, which the EPA has characterized as "severe." The worse the problem, the longer the Clean Air Act allows for cleaning it up. Dallas, which has a "moderate" problem, has until the end of this year to meet its new goals. Houston's deadline is 11 years down the road.

Knowing the tendency of some states to foot drag on environmental cleanups because of the high up-front costs, the EPA outlined a series of steps needed to comply with the Clean Air Act. Specifically, states had to submit "state implementation plans" (SIPs) that detailed programs and how they would work.

In May 1994, Texas completed its SIP charting the initial 15 percent emissions reduction, which was to have been accomplished by November 1996. I/M 240 played a key role in the plan, as did alternative transportation efforts, cleaner-burning fuel, industrial controls and other measures.

At a press conference announcing the testing program that same month, TNRCC chair John Hall explained the whys and wherefores of I/M 240 and introduced the company that had been selected to build and run the local test sites, Tejas Testing Technology of California. An experienced outfit with the political skills to match, Tejas won the contract with a combination of technical know-how and skilled diplomacy.

In particular, Tejas made sure that various interests were tended, especially when it came to the "operating contractors" who would manage the individual testing sites. Among them was then-city councilman Al Calloway, now a member of Mayor Bob Lanier's staff.

But the political hot-wiring didn't compromise the integrity of the program itself. Tejas would build 27 testing sites throughout the city, capable of handling more than twice the number of cars necessary. The company would invest millions in bricks and mortar and sophisticated testing equipment, which would be ready to roll by late 1994. If all went according to plan, Houstonians could start breathing easier by New Year's Day.

All did not go according to plan. Tejas opened its bays for a trial run in November, offering free tests as an inducement to try it out before it was required. The company didn't count on a flood of takers, which meant long lines and irate customers. Nor did Tejas plan for problems with the testing, due mostly to a lack of thorough employee training. "It's like if you've never been in business and open during the Christmas season," says Bill Miller, an Austin consultant who was hired to help salvage the program after it began to wilt under criticism.

Perhaps more significantly, few people seemed to know the program even existed, let alone that they were going to be subject to a new, odious government edict come January. The primary reason: nobody told them.

Not that Tejas didn't want to. Communications director Laura Baker readied a comprehensive PR campaign to follow closely on the heels of the program's unveiling. But the TNRCC, which had veto rights of any publicity under the contract, refused to allow the campaign to proceed. "After the [initial] press conferences, everything just stopped," Baker recalls. "Their decision was not to do anything."

The reason, Baker says she was told by sympathetic TNRCC employees, was that in the heat of the 1994 election season, the state agency didn't want to draw attention to such a potentially volatile issue or give opportunistic candidates a chance to bludgeon legislative incumbents with it.

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