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Panel votes to end test on vehicles

The battle to end the auto emissions testing may jeopardize federal highway funding in Tampa Bay area.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Three Tampa Bay area senators voted to end auto emissions tests in Florida Wednesday, even though Hillsborough and Pinellas counties could lose federal highway dollars if the region's air quality doesn't improve.

Lawmakers said the tailpipe tests aren't catching the kind of pollution that poses a threat to the area, and they say they hear too many complaints from folks tired of bringing their cars in for the tests.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is likely to take a dim view, because the region is among the worst spots for air pollution in Florida.

"How can I explain to my constituents why they have to go through these tests?" said Sen. James Hargrett, D-Tampa. "I think what we need to say is: Enough is enough, and challenge the EPA to come back at us, even if we have to hire a couple of lawyers."

The Senate Transportation Committee, which includes Hargrett, and Sens. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, and Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, voted unanimously to end the testing program.

But the political battle will continue. The bill has two more Senate committee stops and three more in the House, where any number of changes might be made.

Defying federal air pollution rules can be politically risky: Atlanta, Ga., lost federal highway dollars because of excessive smog.

"We are very much in favor of clean air, but to continue with ancient technology that's not accomplishing anything, it's time to move on," Sebesta said.

Six Florida counties have the tests. Air quality in four of those counties -- Duval, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach -- has improved enough that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is ready to end emissions testing in those counties. But the air in Pinellas and Hillsborough still flunks federal standards.

Sullivan had little to say during the debate. Hargrett and Sebesta argued that other factors, such as cleaner cars, cleaner fuels and improvements at the Tampa Electric Co. plant will lead to cleaner air in the coming years.

"Right now they are taking an aggressive posture that we don't think we need the testing and if the EPA thinks we need it, we'll deal with that later," said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, who is sponsoring the bill to end emissions testing.

Klein had urged the Tampa Bay senators to add an amendment that would keep the testing in place in Pinellas and Hillsborough, and even add more intensive testing to catch levels of nitrogen oxide, or NOx, a significant pollutant.

In the last three years, Florida's air quality has gotten worse, primarily because of rising levels of NOx from increased road traffic.

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