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.

By the time TNRCC finally approved a scattering of ads -- in mid-November -- it was too late to have much effect beyond infuriating the citizenry. "The messages are very complicated," says Baker, such as explaining the links between pollution and vehicle maintenance and industry's role in the overall cleanup. "That cannot be communicated in a month during the holidays."

Blend the resulting mass confusion with prevailing anti-government sentiment, and you had a combustible combination. Jon Matthews leaped first, using his KPRC talk show as a test-bashing forum. Never one to pass on an opportunity, Whitmire soon followed with a barrage of melodramatic press releases and op-ed pieces decrying I/M 240 -- even though he'd voted to approve the plan in the previous legislative session. "Millions of Texas residents have been made the victims of yet another unnecessary, inefficient and ill-conceived bureaucratic nuisance," began one typical Whitmire screed published in the Post.

Within two months, Tejas shut down the testing sites and laid off 820 employees. I/M 240 was dead.

John Stieb of the TNRCC says a lack of money, not politics, forced the agency to hold off on publicity until after the elections. The timing, he says was "coincidental with the campaigns, and so a lot of people felt they were tied together."

Besides, says Stieb, even a prolonged education effort would probably not have salvaged I/M 240, which has run into similar problems in other states. "There was a lot of ping-ponging, a lot of unnecessary jerking of motorists around," he says of the program. "I would submit that all of the education in the world would not have changed the reaction."

Still, he admits, the plan that will replace I/M 240, "Motorist's Choice," will have the advantage of a prolonged media blitz before it hits the streets. "We think it would be beneficial to start the public information campaign three to six months ahead of time," says Stieb.

Even with its user-friendly brand name and six months to prep the masses, Motorist's Choice will be a tough sell. Imagine 10,000 cars a day seeking safety inspections, their owners blowing a gasket when informed they have to pass an additional $13 emissions test to get a sticker. Imagine if their vehicles fail the test.

Where to take the test may prove troublesome enough. Currently, there are almost 1,000 locations in Harris County where motorists can get a safety inspection. Many of these are repair shops that offer inspections as a service to their regular customers. There's not much money in it, but it doesn't cost much to provide, either.

The new emissions-testing equipment, however, costs about $16,000 for the initial investment, plus annual service expenses, and the state won't let shops offer safety inspections alone. Given the uncertainty of the market and TNRCC's unwillingness to guarantee the program's longevity, many operators who currently offer the safety-inspection service may well pull up their shingles and leave customers to find another testing site.

Rick Sharbrough believes the emissions-testing requirement could cause more than half of the existing inspection sites to quit the testing business. As president of the Houston chapter of the Automotive Service Association, a trade group of station owners, Sharbrough has been talking about emissions testing with his members for more than two years. He says any claims that operators will get with the program are naive, at best. "It's a farce," Sharbrough says. "People like me aren't gonna buy the equipment. It's a money-losing proposition."

John Stieb disagrees. He believes that service stations currently offering safety inspections will take the emissions plunge, though he's a little vague on how many he expects. "What we have is a situation of supply and demand," he says, "and we have an opportunity for businesses to capitalize on a niche where there's a void."

An informal survey conducted for TNRCC by David Rainey, president of StickerStop, a chain of shops that only does safety inspections, seems to back Sharbrough's contention. Rainey counts 516 businesses likely to get into emissions testing, including his own nine outlets. More than half of Rainey's total are car dealers, and he figures that only 40 percent of safety-inspection stations will continue to provide the service.

Unlike Sharbrough, though, Rainey is an enthusiastic booster of Motorist's Choice. A heavy hand is not the best way to solve pollution problems, he says. "What cleans air is not testing cars," he argues. "What cleans air is maintenance on cars and repairing them."

The StickerStop mogul may have another motive for supporting the new program. "Rainey is serving his own self-interest," says Sharbrough, noting that adding emissions testing to the StickerStop repertoire would add nicely to the corporate bottom line. "You can't blame him a bit."

Nor can you blame the car dealers, who hate centralized testing as much as they detest lemon laws. The National Automobile Dealer's Association actually filed suit against the EPA for its inspection and maintenance rules, though it lost. Under centralized testing, dealers not only would have to haul their fleets over to the test sites instead of doing the work in-house, but they couldn't sell used cars that don't make the grade until costly repairs are made. With Motorist's Choice, those problems dissolve. "It's gonna make it a whole lot easier to sell used cars," says repair-shop owner Tim Hogan.

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