Senator Kim Ward Op-Ed: Vehicle Emissions Testing Reform

Millions of Pennsylvanians are paying for an outdated vehicle emissions testing program in counties that already meet federal air quality standards. As chair of the Pennsylvania Senate Transportation Committee, I believe the time to change that is long overdue.

Pennsylvania’s federally-sanctioned Vehicle Emissions Inspection and Maintenance (I/M) program requires motorists in 25 counties to participate in annual vehicle emissions testing for vehicles such as gasoline-powered passenger cars, vans, and light-duty trucks with a model year of 1975 and newer. (Diesel-powered vehicles are federally-exempt from an annual vehicle emissions testing, and other vehicles such as motorcycles are exempt in Pennsylvania.)

This I/M program was required by Congress in 1990 as part of the Clean Air Act amendments. After changes were implemented, the Commonwealth finally became compliant in 2005. However, Pennsylvania motorists in affected counties are still mandated to receive an outdated vehicle emissions testing every year, at an average cost of $40 per test. The Commonwealth does not set the cost of vehicle emissions testing nor does it collect any fees to manage the I/M program. Instead, the nearly 8,000 official inspection stations across the State set a market-driven fee to account for the cost of the equipment, training, and related expenses.

There is compelling evidence that subject vehicles are continuously passing the annual vehicle emissions testing. Due to newer, more efficient vehicles entering the fleet, vehicle emission testing has become less effective at reducing air pollution.

In Pennsylvania, between 2011-2017, an average of 5.7 million subject vehicles were tested each year; less than 4 percent of all subject vehicles failed the testing (and only 2 percent of subject vehicles eight years old or newer failed).  This demonstrates how annual vehicle emissions testing is ineffective and outdated. Although we are meeting or exceeding federal air quality standards and fewer subject vehicles are failing the vehicle emissions testing, there has not been any action in recent years to modernize the onerous, costly regulations of the I/M program.

In May, the Senate Transportation Committee held a public hearing and collected testimony from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Joint State Government Commission, the Pennsylvania AAA Federation, and an inspection mechanic.

This hearing made it clear to me and many of my colleagues in the Senate of Pennsylvania that we can make meaningful changes to an unnecessary sanction created 30 years ago without putting air quality at risk.

In June, I sponsored and the Senate passed reform measures including Senate Bill 742 and Senate Bill 743. Senate Bill 742 would exempt newer subject vehicles eight years old or newer from the annual vehicle emissions testing. This legislation requires the newer subject vehicles to receive an annual anti-tampering inspection from official inspection stations. The anti-tampering inspection is currently conducted on all non-subject vehicles during the annual safety inspection. Senate Bill 743 would change the annual vehicle emissions testing to a two-year testing requirement for subject vehicles. Therefore, it will create a new testing program by requiring vehicles manufactured in an odd-numbered year to receive a vehicle emission inspection during an odd-numbered year and vehicles manufactured in an even-numbered year to receive the inspection during an even-numbered year. Other reforms passed by the Senate of Pennsylvania in June would remove at least seven counties meeting or exceeding air quality standards from the testing requirement, replace the outdated tests in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia regions with modern methods, and extend the date for existing official inspection stations to obtain new vehicle emissions testing equipment to 2021.

Similar reforms have passed in other States. To illustrate, 21 States (or 72 percent of States requiring vehicle emissions testing) authorize an exemption for newer subject vehicles from vehicle emissions testing similar to Senate Bill 742. 9 States (or 65 percent of States requiring vehicle emissions testing) allow biennial vehicle emissions testing consistent with Senate Bill 743.

Pennsylvania is part of a federally-mandated Northeast Ozone Transport Region, which sets stricter requirements for 12 States and the District of Columbia. However, 5 States (Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Virginia) permit exemptions for newer subject vehicles similar to Senate Bill 742, and 7 jurisdictions (Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Virginia) allow biennial vehicle emissions testing consistent with Senate Bill 743.

These bills were sent to the House of Representatives for consideration. If signed into law, the DEP would be required to prepare a revised State Implementation Plan reflecting these reforms. The revised plan would require review and approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before the reform measures would take effect. This will ensure that Pennsylvania is not in jeopardy of advancing federally-funded highway projects in Pennsylvania.

It is time to give over 5 million motorists a break and bring Pennsylvania’s vehicle emissions testing program into the 21st century.


Senator Kim Ward represents Pennsylvania’s 39th Senatorial District, which covers most of Westmoreland County.

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