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End emissions tests? It could choke funding

Officials worry that a bill to halt tests in Hillsborough and Pinellas would cost hundreds of millions in federal road aid.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2000


Planners in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties fear losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal road-building money if the Legislature ends auto emissions testing in the Tampa Bay area.

That would be "a heavy price to pay for a convenience," said Brian Smith, executive director of Pinellas County's Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The executive director of Hillsborough's MPO, Lucie Ayer, said she worries about losing "hundreds of millions of dollars within a five-year time frame."

Federal officials say they would not cut off the money or impose other sanctions to punish the counties if Florida comes up with an immediate alternative to vehicle testing -- for instance, making local industrial plants reduce emissions.

But state officials don't have an alternative ready.

Tampa Bay's possible punishment troubles even Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, who is sponsoring the bill to end emissions tests. Ending the tests in Pinellas and Hillsborough makes no sense if it leads to sanctions, he said.

The House version of the bill comes up today in the Environmental Protection Committee.

Twelve years ago the Legislature imposed the emissions tests on Pinellas, Hillsborough and four other counties violating federal air standards. The $10-per-year vehicle tests were part of an overall state plan to clean up the pollution, a plan approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The air has gotten cleaner in four counties: Duval, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade. Gov. Jeb Bush wants to eliminate auto emissions testing in those four counties, and the EPA approves.

But the EPA has not given a green light to ending the tests in Pinellas and Hillsborough, which continue to show high levels of ozone, a precursor to smog that causes respiratory problems for children and the elderly.

Part of the ozone is produced by increased auto traffic and part by the output from industrial sources such as Tampa Electric Co.'s coal-fired power plants.

Yet the state Senate Transportation Committee this month voted 10-0 for Klein's bill to end emission testing in all six counties. Three of those votes came from Tampa Bay area Sens. James Hargrett, Jim Sebesta and Don Sullivan.

"How can I explain to my constituents why they have to go through these tests?" Hargrett, D-Tampa, said. "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."

What is at stake is more serious than a lawsuit, say county officials.

"This puts the state, and more importantly, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, in the position of inviting federal sanctions," said Peter Hessling, head of Pinellas' air quality division.

One possible sanction would halt the flow of federal dollars for highway projects that would add more cars to Tampa Bay's roads.

"Having the EPA come crack down on you is not a good thing," said Charles Walston of the Georgia Regional Transit Authority. EPA sanctions have cost Atlanta's 13-county metropolitan area several hundred million dollars in federal highway funds over the past two years, said Walston, a St. Petersburg native.

Another possible EPA sanction would call for requiring any new industry moving to the Tampa Bay area to reduce air pollution by double the amount it would produce, Hessling said.

In other words, if a new business planned to spew 200 tons of pollution into the air, it would have to help businesses already in the area to cut their emissions by 400 tons.

"It becomes economically burdensome and prohibitive" to any company that might want to relocate to the Tampa Bay area, Hessling said.

One official not worried about EPA sanctions is Roger Stewart of Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission. He contends the tests remove only a few tons of pollutants from the air.

"It's not worth taxing the public $10 a year plus the trouble of all the little old ladies driving to the inspection station," Stewart said.

The Tampa Bay area will see a vast improvement in its air from TECO's promised cleanup of its coal-fired plants, Stewart said. Hargrett also cites the TECO cleanup as promising cleaner air than any vehicle testing can provide.

However, that agreement will not produce major pollution reductions before 2004. If the Legislature ends the vehicle tests this spring, Florida has to be ready to replace them immediately.

"It has to be a seamless process," said Linda Anderson-Carnihan, chief of air planning for EPA's Atlanta region. "We can't wait for four years."

Florida's move to end emission testing comes as other states, particularly California and New York, are cracking down on auto emissions.

-- Staff researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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