By Ian Berry Staff Writer
Hamilton Countys vehicle emissions testing program began one year ago, but thousands of people havent gone along for the ride, records show.
The Hamilton County clerks office registered 20,290 fewer vehicles in 2005 than 2004, according to records. Thats a drop from 281,563 to 261,273 vehicles.
The decrease is unprecedented, County Clerk Bill Knowles said. In previous years the number of vehicles always has increased or held steady. The county registered 278,009 vehicles in 2002 and 278,999 vehicles in 2003.
Its very evident somethings happening here, Mr. Knowles said.
Hutch Smith, of Signal Mountain, offers one explanation. He spent more than $1,500 to fix his BMW last year after the car flunked the emissions test that is now required before motorists can register their cars. He said he will know what to do should the car fail the test this year.
Ill just go up to Sequatchie County and register it there, Mr. Smith said. It may be illegal, but a whole lot of people are doing it.
Mr. Smith and many other motorists say the emissions testing program is an unnecessary burden. But testing advocates say recent air quality reports indicate ozone has dropped to its lowest level in Chattanooga since air monitoring began in 1979. Officials said the significance of the ozone decrease several parts per billion is almost unheard of in one year.
If ozone was ever going to form, last summer was the acid test for that, and yet we saw a reduction in ozone, said Quincy Styke, deputy director of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation air pollution control division. So there is measured proof that the program is working.
County and state officials say theyve heard many complaints about the program, which was implemented to keep the county from facing sanctions by the Environmental Protection Agency because of air quality problems. County commissioners have revisited the testing program but concluded theres nothing they can do.
Commissioner Greg Beck has called emissions testing one of the worst things ever imposed on the citizens of Hamilton County.
AVOIDING THE TEST
Envirotest, the company that administers emissions testing for the county, estimated 1,800 motorists whose vehicles failed the test during the first six months of the program never returned for a retest.
The vehicles may have been sold out of state, are not being driven or are being driven illegally, said Steve Kircher, general manager for Envirotest.
Mr. Knowles said a couple of people have come into his office with plates from other counties and asked to have a Hamilton County sticker to place on them. Those requests have been denied, he said.
Vicki Lowe, who oversees the emissions program, predicted in a March 2005 letter to Hamilton County clerks that motorists would attempt to register in other counties.
Of course, this is not acceptable and is prohibited by state law, she wrote.
Mr. Knowles said he is concerned but isnt sure what to do. Clerks in other counties cant call customers liars, and theres nothing in the law requiring motorists to prove they have moved, he said.
Marion County Clerk Dwight Minter said hes seen very few Hamilton County residents trying to register in his office. But he also said some people may be registering using a friends or relatives address, and he said his office doesnt try to prevent that.
I dont question them, he said. I wont do it. I have no reason to.
Though most of the clerks vehicle registration fee is forwarded to the state, the loss of 20,290 vehicles still cost Hamilton County an estimated $56,000 last year, Mr. Knowles said.
The overall vehicle failure rate in Hamilton County so far is 11.64 percent, records show. But the failure rate varies widely depending on the vehicle model year, from a high of 57.89 percent for 1981 models to less than 4 percent each model year since 2002.
Brian Horton has two different cars that failed emissions tests one failed a tailpipe test, while the other failed a computer, or onboard diagnostic, test.
His first failed test was on a 1987 Honda Prelude that was emitting hydrocarbons at six times the allowable level. He got a new catalytic converter for about $136, failed the test again and spent about another $100 on oxygen sensors, spark plug wires and distributor caps before finally passing. He said he considered the repairs relatively inexpensive considering how much the car was polluting.
I had no idea, he said. I felt a lot better that at least Im not polluting as much anymore.
His second car, a 1997 Volvo, required a less expensive, but more puzzling solution. After failing the computer test, he said he scanned the Internet and finally found a service bulletin online on how to reset the drive cycle that was causing the failure.
The method involves starting and stopping the car several times over the course of about 20 minutes. The procedure must be performed twice. He said he thought it was a joke, but he performed the procedures, and the car passed.
Mr. Horton said he didnt understand why Volvo didnt make the information more readily available. He said those who arent as Internet savvy might have no chance of finding the solution to the problem.
It was certainly not from a Volvo site that I got any useful information, Mr. Horton said.
Mr. Kircher said each emissions testing center includes a list of cars, including Volvos, with known onboard diagnostic system problems. Most of the cars are foreign.
PERSONAL COSTS, PUBLIC GAINS
The emissions test costs drivers $10, but many motorists say the resulting repairs after a failed test are the real burden.
Mr. Knowles office has nothing to do with emissions tests but can only give tags to motorists who have passed. He said he supports efforts to clean the regions air, but he hears from many people whose financial situation is dire.
My husbands truck failed the emissions test, and I cant afford to fix it, an East Lake woman wrote in an e-mail to Mr. Knowles last month. So what do I do now? We cant make money if we cant drive the truck.
Mr. Styke said TDEC officials tried to anticipate every possible outcome going into the program. Officials knew people would have difficulty making repairs, he said, and have tried to ease that burden.
Motorists who fail the test still can get their tags if they spend a certain amount for repairs and then fail the test a second time. For cars made earlier than 1981, that cost threshold is $75. The threshold is $200 for models from 1981 to 1995, and $650 for newer model vehicles.
Through February of this year, 440 cost waivers had been granted, officials said.
Its a delay, Mr. Kircher said. It gives you another year to fix the car.
Hardship waivers are also available. Motorists must demonstrate to state officials that circumstances make it impossible for them to pay to fix the vehicle. From April to the end of 2005, 20 hardship waivers were granted, records show.
That is an option, Mr. Styke said. But I want to caution that they cant be handed out left and right.
Mr. Kircher said as time goes by, the failure rate will drop as motorists start taking better care of their cars.
A lot of the difficulties or questions, both mechanical and for consumers, are going to start to diminish because they know they need to start maintaining their vehicles on an annual basis at the minimum, Mr. Kircher said.
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