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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Emissions testing law exhausts its worthiness

Washington’s auto emissions testing program expires at the end of 2019. There is no need to wait that long.

The deadline was established in 2005, when legislators agreed to adopt California vehicle emission standards, which were tighter than the federal rules. Terminating the testing was part of a deal that got enough legislators aboard to get the bill passed.

Cars built since 2008 need not be tested, nor do motorcycles, or older hybrid vehicles. The diminishing number of vehicles older than 20 years are also exempt.

The testing has outlived its usefulness. Cleaner cars and cleaner fuel have substantially reduced emissions since the legislation passed in 2005; two decades after testing had already swept many of the dirtier vehicles off the road. Carbon monoxide emissions are down 28 percent just since 2005, and the reductions in other gases are even better: Sulfur dioxide emissions are less than 20 percent of 2005 levels.

The tests were an irritant to drivers in 1985, when they became a requirement in Spokane County. Cars had to be tested annually for a $9 fee. But the county’s airshed was a mess 28 years ago; in part due to dirty automobiles, in part due to widespread use of inefficient wood stoves. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranked Spokane’s air among the dirtiest in the United States, and half-measures like restricting downtown parking to ease traffic flow were not a cure.

City officials even tried moving air-monitoring stations to avoid intersections where idling vehicles belched more carbon monoxide.

Those were not the days.

Although per-vehicle emissions improved after testing began, total pollution continued to increase along with car and truck numbers during years of rapid population growth. The introduction of oxygenated fuel in the early 1990s finally slowed the trend.

In 2005, Spokane was removed from the EPA “dirty air” list. There is no Washington city on the list today. And, according to the American Lung Association, Spokane did not have a single high ozone day in the three years starting 2009.

Clearly, a lot of progress has been made, and more could be done. But is continued testing the best way forward?

Washington’s contract with tester Applus+, which has performed its job well, expires at the end of June 2017, 1 ½ years before sunsetting of the test requirement. Although that is four years ahead, legislators looking for more money for transportation improvements should keep in mind Washington drivers pay about $15 million annually in test fees, of which about $3 million already goes into the general fund.

The amount is small compared with the need but, wisely spent to facilitate traffic movement, it might well-reduce emissions more than testing, which itself cleans nothing.

With more than 3 million registered vehicles, Washington may never see the day when everyone will comply with emissions standards.

But the money spent achieving small additional gains by retaining the 2019 sunset date might be better dedicated to more traffic signaling, or turn lanes.

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