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Smog Checks to Get in Gear With Air Act : Pollution: The ceiling for repair costs may be increased. Other changes in the state’s program may be required to comply with new federal law.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new federal Clean Air Act will require changes in California’s smog check program, and it’s a safe bet they won’t be universally popular.

The most likely is an increase in the ceiling for repair costs, to an across-the-board $450 from the current sliding scale--which ranges from $50 for pre-1972 cars to $300 for post-1989 models.

It is also possible that a smog check will be necessary every year, rather than every other year, and that vehicle owners will no longer head for the corner gas station at inspection time but to a separate, state-owned facility where passes and fails are issued but no repairs are undertaken.

The proposals, which have angered California officials, will be contained in guidelines scheduled to be issued next month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as it moves to enforce the new federal law.

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Smog checks are in place in 39 states, including California. Florida and Minnesota also are scheduled to start smog checks soon, while West Virginia, Maine and possibly Vermont will be forced to do so under the new law.

If the legislature does not enact the EPA’s mandates, the federal government could withhold highway funds and make it more difficult for highly polluting industries to expand or locate in the state--sanctions that were invoked in the early 1980s.

Eugene Tierney, who oversees the EPA’s vehicle emissions testing programs, said the frequency of testing and centralizing of the inspection stations may be negotiable items, but the state may have to choose one or the other.

As for the $450 cost limit, “there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it, unfortunately, for those people who are going to be faced with those kinds of repairs,” Tierney said.

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California officials are upset by the prospect of higher limits on repairs that can be required of motorists, noting that the oldest cars--which generally belong to the poorest people--usually are the ones in need of extensive repairs to pass the emissions test. Owners of newer, heavily computerized cars also could face high costs if repairs are needed.

“I don’t think it makes a lot of rational sense,” said R.J. Sommerville, chairman of the state’s review committee for the program.

“That $450 thing is going to be a serious problem,” said Steve Gould, research specialist for the Bureau of Automotive Repair, which runs the state’s smog check program.

California last year waived repairs for about 69,000 vehicles which required work that would have cost more than the limits now in place, Gould said. “Of those, about half were probably major, in that $450 range,” he said.

Still, those cars probably have a greater impact on pollution than their numbers would indicate, Gould said. The dirtiest 1% of cars contribute about 9% of the carbon monoxide and about 13% of the hydrocarbons spewed into California’s skies by nearly 16 million cars on the road, he said. About 75% of those high-polluting vehicles are more than 15 years old.

Until the EPA publishes its guidelines in final form in June, “we’re assuming that every aspect of the smog check program is open to discussion,” said Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. “At this time, we’re not committed to any changes.”

State Sen. Robert B. Presley (D-Riverside), who introduced the bill establishing the sliding scale, said he thinks such an approach “is a lot more fair. We had to take into account that low-income people own a lot of those old cars, and that the old cars will be off the road in a few years.

“It’s never over till it’s over,” Presley said. “There will be a lot of negotiating going on.”

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State officials are floating a number of possible compromises: A new sliding scale with higher cost limits; a buyback project that would involve the state paying for and scrapping old cars that need expensive repairs, and a timetable allowing six months or a year to get necessary work completed and paid for.

But they stressed that such talk is no more than preliminary.

Though there is “no leeway” in the $450 cost ceiling, Tierney said, the new clean air law will allow states to avoid the centralized stations and annual inspections if they can show that there are other ways to reduce the same amount of pollution.

The principal advantage of central testing stations, said Tierney, is “the station operator has no interest in the outcome of the test and does not do repairs.” Gas station mechanics who inspect cars belonging to regular customers, Tierney said, “aren’t always failing vehicles that should fail.”

Indeed, the Bureau of Automotive Repair has found that emissions control equipment had been tampered with on 25% of cars pulled over for random roadside testing, while smog check mechanics report tampering on only about 5% to 6% of the cars they test.

The cost of inspections also is lower for centralized programs, Tierney said. In a survey of 14 states with separate testing stations, he said, the fee averaged $8.50. Service stations showing the blue and red “smog check” signs around California advertise fees ranging from $19 to more than $35.

There are disadvantages, however, state officials counter. In the late 1970s, California experimented with a centralized smog-check system in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. “At the end, we made a practical decision,” said Sessa, of the ARB. With the centralized system, “if you’re a consumer, you have to ping-pong. You make an appointment; if your car fails, you have to go somewhere else to get your car repaired, then you go back to the centralized station for another test.”

It was the debate over a centralized system that sparked a heated legislative battle in the late 1970s. The resulting delays in establishing a smog check program led the EPA to impose sanctions on California. But state officials say the sanctions had little effect because no highway projects were up for funding at the time.

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Recent changes in the California program--including stricter licensing of mechanics and requirements for new, expensive testing equipment at service stations offering smog checks--"built-in protection to prevent shoddy work,” Sessa said.

As for the annual inspections, he added, “it’s not how often you inspect the car that matters, it’s how well you repair the car.”


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