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Auto shops fear losses if emissions testing ends

Lawmakers voted to end testing as of July 1. Bush still has to sign the bill.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2000


Inside the Auto Place, a cavernous repair shop near Tropicana Field on 16th Street N in St. Petersburg, sits a big piece of machinery that owner Leldon Blackwell says is probably headed for the junkyard.

It's not some rusted-out truck. It's a $15,000 machine that diagnoses problems with a car's emissions system. Blackwell just bought it because 35 percent of his business comes from fixing cars that have flunked the state's auto emissions tests.

But two weeks ago the Legislature voted to end auto emissions tests as of July 1. If Gov. Jeb Bush signs the bill, Blackwell figures he will have no more use for his diagnostic machine, plus he will lose a chunk of his customers.

"We'll tread water then," said Blackwell, 65.

Across the Tampa Bay area, auto repair shop owners are assessing a future without emissions tests. Some, like Blackwell, say they don't like what they see -- and not just because they will lose money.

They think many motorists will skip getting their vehicles tuned up regularly. What the motorists don't know is that a poorly tuned engine wastes gasoline, costing more in the long run than the $10 test, several shop owners said.

"Most people will let it run and let it run, and they don't know how much gas they're wasting," said Hinesman Dukes of Friendly Auto Repair in Tampa, which may lose 20 percent of its customers.

Some were less concerned.

At the Keep America Beautiful repair shop in Pinellas Park, a sign that says "Emissions Adjustments Here" greets motorists leaving a nearby testing station. But owner Pat Perez figures that accounts for only a sliver of his business.

State officials say that in all six counties the tests eliminated 573 tons of carbon monoxide and 47 tons of VOCs a day.

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"I didn't really see it helping anything," said Perez, who would rather the state require a full-fledged safety inspection for all cars. The only change he plans is taking down his sign.

Florida launched emissions testing in 1991 in six Florida counties that flunked federal air standards in the late 1980s: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval and Palm Beach. The tests were part of an EPA-approved plan to bring those counties into compliance.

Florida's annual tests check to see if cars are emitting excessive amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, also known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs. State officials say that in all six counties the tests eliminated 573 tons of carbon monoxide and 47 tons of VOCs a day.

For instance, a customer brought a 1984 Volvo to Blackwell's garage because it was putting out 12 times more carbon monoxide than allowed. Blackwell's staff fixed the car so it would run clean and pass the test.

State environmental officials say the air quality has improved enough in four counties to end testing there, and EPA officials have given a tentative approval to that plan. State environmental officials wanted to continue the tests in Pinellas and Hillsborough, where the air has not been as good. But lawmakers voted to end the tests in all six counties.

Thirty-seven other states, plus the District of Columbia, have emissions testing, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Prior to Florida's actions only one state that instituted emissions testing ended its program: Minnesota, which obtained EPA approval first.

Some Pinellas and Hillsborough officials fear that, because the state hasn't gotten permission from the EPA to end testing in their counties, the federal agency may cut off millions of dollars in federal highway funds.

Although the bill ending the testing passed both the House and Senate overwhelmingly, it has not been signed by the governor. Bush generally supports ending the testing, but press secretary Liz Hirst said Monday that the governor "is going to have to really review the final bill closely to determine what his ultimate position will be."

If Bush does sign the bill, several garage owners predicted, state officials will soon be forced to bring the tests back.

"I give it five years," said Richard Alberto, owner of the Auto-Tech Garage in St. Petersburg. "Then the same thing will happen again. . . . Cars will need to be tuned and the air will get dirty again."

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