The 19 nearly identical red brick buildings that have sprung up across Maryland's landscape this past year are just five weeks away from offering one of the nation's strictest vehicle exhaust testing programs.
For the average motorist, the new pollution-control tests bode dramatic change. They will be more elaborate, stringent, time-consuming and expensive than any given before. The state expects 300,000 vehicles to fail the biennial test each year, causing their owners to face repair bills as high as $450.
While similar federally mandated vehicle testing has been steadfastly fought in other states, there has been little protest in Maryland.
It is not clear whether that is because residents support the program's clean air goals or are unaware of the new provisions that go into effect after Jan. 1.
Maryland is one of 23 states under federal orders to adopt the "enhanced inspection and maintenance" program in urban areas. The 1990 Clean Air Act amendments require the states to lower the atmospheric levels of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide, which are pollutants that create ground-level ozone.
Baltimore reported 11 days last summer that ozone levels exceeded standards, more than any other East Coast city. Ozone is considered a significant health problem, particularly for those with respiratory problems such as allergies, asthma, bronchitis or emphysema.
By enforcing tougher standards on urban motorists, Maryland expects to remove 16.8 tons of pollution from the air each day.
While the state has had some form of emissions testing for more than a decade, the new test will be administered in six additional counties. Frederick, Washington, Cecil, Queen Anne's, Calvert and Charles counties will join Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, vTC Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties as well as Baltimore City. An estimated 2.7 million vehicles will be covered.
All the stations are new. The company that is building and will operate the facilities under a $96.9 million contract, MARTA Technologies, Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., chose not to use any of the stations operating today, which means motorists will have to go to new locations.
W. Marshall Rickert, head of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, has vowed to open the stations on time and on budget.
"I think our system will prove to be the best designed in the nation," said Mr. Rickert, whose agency runs the emissions program under the oversight of the state Department of the Environment.
Several Northeast states have refused to create similar programs despite warnings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency EPA) that they will face sanctions as early as July. The Pennsylvania legislature recently put its program on hold. Virginia and Delaware have yet to submit proposals to the EPA.
Mr. Rickert said much of the opposition has been directed not at the rigors of the test but at the concept of centralized testing. Maryland always has maintained central facilities for exhaust tests.
"It's not so difficult to go from one form of centralized testing to another," said Catherine L. Magliocchetti of the EPA's Mid-Atlantic regional office, as to go from "gas stations running the system to centralized testing with its image of government bureaucracy and long lines."
As in the past, vehicle owners will be mailed a notice asking them to appear at a testing site within two months. What they will discover is a test station that looks like a cross between a car wash and an austere state office building.
At a prototype facility near Annapolis, MARTA has been training workers to handle the new equipment.
An attendant with a hand-held computer greets each motorist to gather information about the vehicle and assess a $17 fee. That is twice the cost now, but the driver will be given the option of paying by cash, check or credit card instead of cash only.
Unlike what happens during the two-minute test given now, the driver must leave the car and wait in a long, narrow lounge with windows facing the test lane. The procedure will last an average of 15 minutes.
Another change is that the test gets under the hood. An attendant will hook up two hoses to the car's evaporative system and a third to the exhaust before the vehicle is driven to the two test stations.
First is the dynamometer, a treadmill device that allows a computer to measure a car's emissions at various speeds. While a fan blows air at the car to keep the engine from overheating, the attendant focuses on a computer screen, accelerating or braking to match the speed required to keep a flashing cursor within certain parameters.
"It's like a video game for your feet," said Dawn Hoefler, a MARTA employee training to become manager of the Glen Burnie station.
The test should last an average of four minutes, but can take as little as two (if the car passes easily) or as much as eight if the attendant makes a mistake and fails to keep the car running within 2 mph of the required speed.
The dynamometer is the heart of the emissions test and could prove the most controversial. At one point, a car spins its wheels at the equivalent of 55 mph, a speed that seems faster when the car is running in place on a treadmill.
"A lot of people aren't going to like getting out of the car and having someone else drive it like that," predicted Bruce E. Diehl, the MVA's director of the emissions program.
Next, the car is pulled up to the evaporative emissions test. A small amount of compressed air is pumped into the fuel system to determine if vapors leak into the atmosphere.
At the end of the line, a computer prints out the results. If a car fails -- as an estimated one-in-five cars will do compared with one-in-eight today -- the owner could face up to $250 in repairs, a limit that rises to $350 in 1996 and $450 in 1997. The EPA estimates the average emissions-related repair bill will be $120.
Now, a motorist must spend a minimum of $150 on repairs to be waived from pollution requirements.
An MVA employee who has at least four years' experience in automotive repair training will be on hand to explain the emissions test results. Officials also hope to produce brochures and an explanatory video . to be shown in the waiting area.
"I think people are going to be absolutely outraged when they find out the conditions of this program," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "It's another example of the federal government imposing regulations that just aren't practical."
Whether the public objects or not, the procedure is likely to be a topic when the state legislature convenes in January. With a Republican majority in Congress and a conservative mood in the electorate, legislators may show interest in weakening the state program.
EPA officials warn that doing so could mean the state must impose potentially crippling standards on business and industrial polluters or face a major reduction in federal highway funds.
"As a practical matter, I can't believe that after all the money that's been spent in equipping and building the stations, the state of Maryland would go back on that," said Shelley M. Buckingham, a lobbyist with the Maryland chapter of the American Lung Association. "Eventually, this program is going to reduce the severity of our air pollution and reduce the number of individuals sick from it."
But advocates such as Ms. Buckingham and others say they believe the new tailpipe procedure faces problems if people are not made aware of its benefits. State officials insist they plan to mount an extensive public relations effort.
"The American adult is in love with his automobile," said Mr. Diehl of the MVA. "We have to be careful with that relationship and tell people, 'Hey, this test isn't going to hurt your car.' "