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.

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.

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.

Regardless of the motives of participants, one of the aspects of Motorist's Choice that will make it more palatable to the public, says Stieb, is that motorists can select from among, say, the 500 plus test sites that Rainey estimates will be available, instead of the mere 27 Tejas testing stations under the I/M 240 plan. From the standpoint of "choice," however, the net result of the new program probably will be a wash: more choices for emissions testing, fewer choices for safety inspections.

One of the reasons the EPA supports I/M 240 programs has nothing to do with the technology of the test, though it does provide the most conclusive data. I/M 240 is a centralized, test-only program, meaning that sites conduct emissions tests, and that's it. Needed repairs must be done by a motorist's regular mechanic.

That may be inconvenient for owners whose cars fail the breathalyzer, since after the repair they have to go back for a retest; thus, the irritating "ping-pong" effect cited by Stieb. But it's a lot less problematic than being charged a couple of hundred dollars for an unneeded repair, only one reason why the EPA has bad things to say about "test-and-repair" programs like Motorist's Choice.

Tim Hogan believes that test-and-repair practice will pose some interesting ethical dilemmas. "The incentive to fail somebody is going to be really high," he says. Since the return on the test itself is marginal, Hogan says, "[participants] are gonna have to get some repairs out of it to pay for the equipment."

The flip side of the fraud issue favors the motorist, but at the expense of cleaner air. As has been well documented elsewhere, station owners are inclined to pass the cars of their regular customers, no matter how foul the tailpipe. And the lower-tech test, which involves sticking a sensor in a car's tailpipe instead of running the vehicle at variable speeds on a treadmill, is much easier to fudge.

Even the TNRCC recognized the problem inherent in a decentralized test-and-repair program.

"It's obvious that having testing and repair at the same place creates a conflict of interest," Richard Flannery, an administrator in the agency's Houston office, said in 1994.

No matter how dutiful a state's attempt to police its program, nothing seems to work. Numerous studies in New York, California and other states that have decentralized emissions testing all lead to the conclusion published in the "EPA I/M Briefing Book," the agency's thick primer: "Test-and-repair is not effective at reducing vehicle emissions."

That's why until recently the EPA only gave states with test-and-repair programs half credit for the emissions reductions shown in their computer models. In other words, if Motorist's Choice resulted in a reduction of 14 tons of ozone-causing pollutants in Houston per day, Texas would only have been able to claim credit for seven tons toward its mandated reduction goal.

Despite the evidence, Texas and other states with pollution problems put an end to that bit of government meddling. With Bush and TNRCC officials joining the national inquisition of the EPA, the agency suddenly found new flexibility: Texas could claim full credit for its program, as long as the state could demonstrate its effectiveness and back it with an 18-month review.

That pleases John Stieb, who says assuming shops will engage in dubious practices is unfair. And he challenges the idea that anyone would take advantage of the rules. "We believe in innocent until proven guilty," he says. "We believe that the [service providers] are honest."

Stieb is confident that when the data is in, Texas will pass the big emissions test. "What we intend to do is demonstrate to the EPA the integrity of the program," he says.

That may not be so easy. In its effort to make Motorist's Choice as painless as possible, the state has cut a few corners. Adequately enforcing a test-and-repair program, for example, requires a heavy investment of time and labor. California spends roughly $7 per vehicle on its oversight program, which would mean $21 million annually to monitor the Harris County end of Motorist's Choice. But Texas is planning no such investment, according to Stieb. In fact, he says, oversight of the new program won't cost much more than supervision of the old one would have, perhaps about $5 million.

But again, it wasn't long ago that the agency was telling a different story. Arguing for I/M 240 in 1994, TNRCC's Richard Flannery said, "Going decentralized would have logarithmically increased that state's oversight costs."

Stieb now says that Texas will realize significant savings by putting the Department of Public Safety, which enforces the safety-inspection program, in charge of emissions oversight. But EPA environmental protection specialist David Sosnowski is dubious. "Logic seems to disagree with that," he says, reeling off a list of flaws. How, for example, can a covert auditing of 500 stations, which requires pre-setting cars to pass and fail and running them through, as well as other checks and balances, cost the same as supervision of the 27 Tejas sites?

That's not the only iffy part of the plan. Motorists who fail the test and don't get repaired, or those who don't bother to get the test at all, will find their registration renewal denied when they show up at the window. That is, if the Legislature approves tying the test to registration denial, which was expressly prohibited by a bill passed last session.

Stieb will also have to revise the claim he made last November in trying to boost the new program's credibility -- that the Tejas sites would be available to motorists as an additional option that could serve up to 40 percent of the public. That's unlikely, since Tejas has sued the state for $187.5 million over the discarded program, and no resolution is pending. "I was optimistic that we'd be able to negotiate a role for Tejas," Stieb says. "Now, I am not so confident."

Then there's remote sensing, a developing technology designed to catch out-of-town commuter polluters in the act. Using specially equipped vans strategically stationed on congested routes, sensors sniff out offending vehicles as they pass. If caught, motorists would receive a letter asking that they come in for an emissions test. An active remote-sensing component, the EPA says, must be a part of any plausible test-and-repair program.

Trouble is, remote sensing so far has proven highly inaccurate, and the political peril of hauling in motorists whose cars are in fine shape would scare off even the EPA. TNRCC's solution? "What we're evaluating," says Stieb, "is raising the pollution detection limit so that we're only going to look at truly gross, gross polluters."

Which might well mean a whole lot of money spent on fancy vans and remote sensing equipment for nothing. When you simply raise the detection limit, says EPA's David Sosnowski dryly, "the utility of the program gets quite dicey."

Texas has until late March to present a revised implementation plan that shows how Motorist's Choice will achieve its clean-air goals. If the state beats the deadline and makes a "good faith effort" to do the right thing, says John Stieb, then the EPA has no choice but to accept TNRCC's judgment. That's because of the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995, the same federal law that removed interstate speed limits, which gives Texas 100 percent credit for its test-and-repair program -- unless the EPA can prove it doesn't deserve the credit.

If push comes to shove, however, it may not matter what the EPA says. These are not fat times for the agency, which is under a sustained attack by Republicans in Congress. The highway bill was a slap in the EPA's face, and some members of Congress are threatening to reopen consideration of the Clean Air Act itself. "The EPA is running scared," says George Smith, who chairs the state Sierra Club air quality committee. "They just can't stand up to business and the politicians."

Just in case the EPA finds enough backbone to challenge the Texas plan, state officials are pursuing a parallel strategy by challenging the standards themselves. In addition to leading the charge for the 100-percent credit change, the state offered general support for proposed changes to the Clean Air Act by North Carolina Senator Lauch Faircloth, with one addition: a two-year extension on deadlines for problem ozone areas classified as "moderate."

Not coincidentally, the moderately polluted Dallas-Fort Worth area will likely miss its November cleanup deadline.

And last November, TNRCC Commissioner Ralph Marquez traveled to Washington to urge a change in the way ozone is measured. The EPA is working toward strengthening the current standard, prompted by evidence that it doesn't do enough to protect the public and a federal court order to make a change. But the proposal Marquez suggested on behalf of his agency would actually weaken the standard, and, not surprisingly, bring polluted Texas cities closer to "attainment."

TNRCC's explanation is that Marquez was not presenting the agency's official position, only floating ideas to stimulate discussion. "The agency has not adopted or as a collective agency approved this new ozone standard discussion," says John Stieb. But Marquez was following the exact strategy proposed in memos from TNRCC executive director Dan Pearson and chief engineer Dan Wittliff. "The staff and I believe that this is an appropriate position for the state to take regarding this issue," wrote Pearson.

Marquez didn't stop at asking for a lowered standard. Doing his best imitation of a tobacco company executive, the commissioner argued that ozone pollution wasn't such a big deal, and perhaps it would be best to focus attention on other problems. "After all," said Marquez, "ozone is not a poison or a carcinogen. It is a relatively benign pollutant compared to other environmental risks."

Though such comments might be expected from a former Monsanto engineer and vice chairman of the Texas Chemical Council, Marquez's statement contradicts reality. Ozone pollution has been linked to respiratory disease in children, asthma attacks and other medical emergencies, even severe lung damage and premature death. "We don't feel it's benign by any means," says Wade Thomason, director of government relations and environmental health for the American Lung Association of Texas, "and I know that those who are most affected by it, particularly children and the elderly and people with lung disease, don't feel that way either."

Marquez may not have been spouting bona fide TNRCC dogma, but his lobbying for an end to ozone enforcement is consistent with other official opinions, such as that of Bush. Citing Marquez's testimony in a November speech announcing Motorist's Choice, Bush called on the EPA to simplify the state's ability to comply with the Clean Air Act. "Texans want the EPA to measure air quality in a more reliable way," Bush said.

That approach is also consistent with other TNRCC actions. In 1994, the agency refigured its "emissions inventory" of air pollutants from all sources in Houston by chopping tons off the total, making it easier to meet the cleanup goals. And with the TNRCC providing bureaucratic muscle, the EPA recently granted Houston industry a two-year waiver on obligations to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, an ozone component. TNRCC will soon ask for yet another extension. "I don't see the agency very serious in making reductions," says the Sierra Club's George Smith. "They're just sort of stalling, hoping the pollution standards are changed."

State air-quality officials are fond of pointing out the great strides Houston has made since the 1970s and early 1980s, when a brown haze regularly obscured the tops of downtown buildings. Due mostly to improvements in industrial technology, cleaner cars and small-business regulations, the number of days the city was in violation of the current ozone standard steadily dropped from 71 in 1985 to only 39 in 1994.

But last year, the number rose to 63, including ten straight days in September. Though all sides agree that the unusually hot summer was the biggest factor, any way it's spun, the news was bad. And even 39 days is a long way from the "attainment" level, which is one day per year.

John Stieb admits that juggling the computer model to show adequately low ozone levels will be a difficult enough task, let alone actually reducing them. "I think the agency has always acknowledged that it's going to be a challenge to achieve attainment in 2007," he says. "We expect to be able to. We have not identified all the parts of doing that yet."

The big picture is not good news for Houston lungs. According to federal statistics, more than 1.3 million people in the metropolitan area have chronic respiratory conditions, including more than 340,000 cases of emphysema, chronic bronchitis and asthma. Though obviously not the sole cause, ozone plays a significant role.

The costs of these medical conditions is enormous -- an estimated $185 million every year. Treating local pediatric asthma cases alone costs more than $14 million annually. Though no study has been done in Texas, other comparisons of the relative costs of cleanup and health care suggest that cleanup is cheaper.

But that's in the long run, and as Motorist's Choice and other state efforts indicate, the short-term political will to impose unpopular changes on the cleanup side is almost totally lacking. Consequently, says George Smith, "The air is going to continue to be not fit to breathe."

Tim Hogan hoped for better. In addition to being an auto repair shop owner, Hogan is an asthmatic. Diagnosed at the age of four, he uses two inhalers to keep air flowing smoothly to his lungs. In the hot summer months, even from his more rural locale in Brazoria County, the inhalers only last about half as long. His asthma's worsened over the years, and a drive into Houston just makes it even worse, bringing on an unmistakable tightness in his chest.

"I just recently had a little boy," Hogan explains, as though nothing more need be said. "I don't want him to come down with what I've got.

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