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$30 car tabs may be on hold, but there’s one less vehicle fee in 2020

Emissions testing in Washington will go away after the end of 2019. (NMcClain, Flickr)

Some saw it as a way to help the environment and were happy to do it.

Then there were those who felt it was a minor inconvenience.

And some were once again left with that dreaded choice: Drive illegally? Shell out big bucks you don’t have to fix the car? Or hand over a smaller waiver fee to make it a problem for another year.

“A generation of Washingtonians have had to go down to the emissions testing station and have their vehicle tested out, making sure that it’s operating properly — [and] in just a couple of weeks here we’re going to stop that,” said Andy Wineke with the state Department of Ecology’s air quality program.

Washington state to end vehicle emissions test program in 2020

Wineke says after nearly 40 years Washington state is ending its emissions testing requirement. Since the early 1980s, drivers of most vehicles in Pierce, King, Snohomish, Spokane, and Clark counties have had to cough up what’s now about $15 to get an emissions test every two years – and pass – in order to get or renew their car tabs.

Washington was one of several states to start requiring emissions testing back in the 80s in an effort to help comply with the federal Clean Air Act.

With so much current focus on green new deals and fighting climate change, why would we scrap something meant to clean up our air?

“This isn’t really about climate change — cars and trucks are still the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in our state… this is about other forms of toxic air pollution, that’s really what the emissions testing program was always designed to get at, so carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide and other forms of toxic air pollution,” Wineke explained.

He says while emissions testing is a good way to limit those forms of toxic air pollution, it’s no longer the best way.

Wineke says emissions from personal cars and trucks have actually been relatively flat the last 10 or 15 years, despite the booming population and overall number of cars going up, partly because people are driving less, they’re telecommuting and their cars are more fuel efficient.

“About 15 years ago, our state adopted the strongest emissions testing standards in the country, those set by California under the U.S. Clean Air Act,” Wineke recalled. “When (Washington state) adopted those new standards, they said, ‘hey, when can we stop doing this emissions testing program? You know, new cars are going to keep getting cleaner because we’ve adopted these standards, so when will we be able to count on emissions continuing to improve even without requiring everybody to go down to the testing station once every couple of years?’ Back then we looked at it and we figured out … about 2020.”

On top of that, cars older than 25 years are exempt under Washington’s emissions testing program.

“So we were looking at a pool of cars newer than 25 years and older than 2008 so it was kind of a shrinking pool. We used to test a little over a million cars a year and these days we’re down to about 750,000 to 800,000, so the window is shrinking,” Wineke said.

That’s why he’s confident that the 2020 end date was spot on.

“Because we are requiring new cars to be cleaner and because old cars, they break down, they age out of the fleet, we think overall air quality is going to continue to improve even without this emissions testing,” Wineke said.

That doesn’t mean that car or truck with thick black smoke pouring out of the tailpipe as you drive, walk bike or otherwise go by is getting a free pass..

“Certainly if your car is putting out clouds of smoke you need to do something about it … you’re going to destroy your engine, and it’s bad for your health and your neighbor’s health,” Wineke said, adding there are still laws on the books that allow police to give you a ticket if your vehicle is a threat to public safety.

“The emissions testing program, it’s not that it doesn’t help get at that problem but it’s no longer the most efficient way to do it,” Wineke said.

So, what is?

“The best way to do it is to get more efficient cars and trucks, or to switch to hybrids or to full electric vehicles,” he said.

The state will also follow up to be sure there are no negative effects from the end of the emissions testing program.

Washington greenhouse gas emissions jump in recent tally

“We keep a close eye on air quality so if we see any of these forms of toxic air pollution taking a long term rise we’ll definitely try to get something done about it, go to the Legislature,” Wineke said, but they do not believe that would including bringing back the emissions program.

He says the big downside to this change is the loss of jobs, because while most people look at emissions testing as a burden or a hassle, some people devoted their entire careers to the work.

There will be about 140 people out of a job at the various testing stations around the state, which are owned by contractors, though some have moved to other emissions program jobs out of state. Wineke says roughly a dozen jobs are gone at the state ecology department because of the emissions program loss, but most have either been placed on other state jobs, or retired.

The emissions program ends Dec, 31. That means anyone with car tabs due between now and the end of the year that had a requirement to get an emissions test done will still have to do it on order to get their vehicle registered – but if your tabs are due Jan. 1, 2020 or beyond, you’re in the clear.

Those who do need a test should be prepared for lines at testing centers, which are slowly being phased out across the state already.  You can find more information about the end of the emissions program here.

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