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Maryland officials plan to make more new cars exempt from emissions testing

Maryland transportation officials plan to double the exemption period for state-mandated emissions testing on new cars to 6 models years from 3, citing the high pass rate of such vehicles.

The state currently requires owners of vehicles more than 3 model years old to visit a state emissions testing station every other year to ensure the vehicle’s emissions system is working properly and keeping enough pollutants out of the atmosphere.

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The new plan, disclosed in a request for bids to run the program, would take effect as soon as Maryland hires a new contractor.

The state Department of Transportation also may close some of its emissions testing stations and expand the number of private repair shops that can perform the testing, according to the request for proposals.

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Officials plan to phase out older testing technology and use computerized testing only, exempting older vehicles without this capacity.

The proposed changes, which will go before an advisory committee in June, took some lawmakers and environmental advocates by surprise, but transportation officials dubbed them common-sense modernizations meant to ease the burden of emissions testing on Maryland drivers.

MDOT spokesman David Broughton said the vehicles that would be newly excluded by this plan, those between 3 and 6 model years old, have an average pass rate of 99%, compared with 87% for older vehicles.

But older heavy-duty vehicles that can’t undergo computerized testing are failing substantially more often — 10% of the time, Broughton said. Those vehicles, however, are retiring at a rate of 18% per year.

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Del. Kumar Barve and Sen. Will Smith Jr., Democrats who represent Montgomery County, sent a letter last month to the state’s transportation and environment departments, seeking more information about the proposed changes. In an interview, Barve expressed concern that the changes were put before potential new contractors before relevant lawmakers.

“My feeling is that the legislature should be involved in policy decisions like this,” Barve said.

“On the surface, it doesn’t seem like it would be good for the environment but, you know, I would love to know what their reasoning is and what their numbers are,” he added.

The new policy doesn’t require a legislative sign-off, but Sen. Cory McCray, a Baltimore City Democrat, said he is considering trying to insert language in MDOT’s budget that would require it.

In 2017, the department changed the rules so that new vehicles wouldn’t need to be tested until they were 3 model years old rather than 2. After that, a Department of Legislative Services analysis recommended the agency propose legislation in the future, to avoid any conflict between state law and regulatory changes.

Some lawmakers also are concerned that removing centralized stations could leave some Marylanders far from testing locations, and that welcoming more private mechanics into the fold could present accountability challenges.

“What will be the process to determine which centralized stations will be closed?” Barve and Smith asked in their letter. “Will input from local legislators be sought? Will public hearings be held?”

The Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, a national environmental advocacy group, expressed concern that relaxing requirements on emissions testing could send the wrong message, as the state rushes to reach its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 50% by 2030.

“If electric vehicles were at a higher percentage of the overall percentage of new sales, then we might have more confidence,” said Lindsey Mendelson, transportation representative for the Maryland Sierra Club. “But for now, there’s still a lot of gasoline-powered cars that are being sold. And so we really do need emission testing on those.”

The group wants to review the data from the Hogan administration about how the change will impact air emissions.

Rasto Brezny, executive director of the Manufacturers of Emission Controls Association, said the changes fall in line with improvements in the auto industry, which has made newer vehicles significantly cleaner. For instance, newer engines often burn less oil, meaning catalytic converters don’t wear out as quickly. Newer vehicles also tend to have longer emissions warranties.

“It’s a trend that we’re seeing across the country, and it really comes from the fact that vehicles are lasting longer. The technology — a lot has improved a great deal, even in the last five to 10 years,” Brezny said. “As states look at ways to reduce the cost to consumers, they kind of monitor how many failures they’ve detected in their emission testing programs.”

The state’s computerized emissions testing uses a vehicle’s onboard diagnostic systems, which were required in cars starting in model year 1996. Since older gas cap and idle testing requires more equipment, relying on only the computerized testing could allow more privately owned shops accredited by the state to run tests.

“That’s pretty expensive equipment, whereas the [onboard diagnostic] is really just an electronic readout that they plug into, and they can tell what the issues are and what the owner has to go get fixed,” Brezny said. “So it really makes it, I think, easier for everybody.”

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