A key state board approved a revised contract for Maryland’s vehicle emissions stations on Wednesday, allowing the stations to implement a change in the program: New cars, trucks and SUVs will be exempt from testing for the first six years instead of the first three years.

The reasoning behind the change, which is expected to take effect this fall, is that 99% of those newer cars pass the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program tests anyway, at a cost of time and money to the drivers.

But with hundreds of thousands of vehicles soon to be exempt, that means only owners of older vehicles are paying testing fees and going through the program, raising questions of equity and environmental justice.

“I understand that the state wants to proceed with the changes since newer vehicles are not our biggest air quality concern and we’re well overdue for a new contract,” said Comptroller Brooke Lierman, a Democrat and member of the Board of Public Works, which approves state government contracts.

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“But I just can’t overlook the inequity of the impact under this regulation. Drivers of older vehicles — those who often cannot afford new cars — will be bearing the brunt of funding our state’s successful Clean Air Act program,” she added.

The fees for emissions testing are $14 for a standard test and $10 for a test at a self-serve kiosk. Vehicles that are required to have emissions tests must do so every two years.

Checking vehicles to see that they are properly reducing emissions is part of Maryland’s strategy for reducing air pollution and complying with the federal Clean Air Act. Gas-powered cars, trucks and SUVs emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide that contribute to climate change. They also spit out nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and other emissions that contribute to the formation of smog.

The state’s administrator of the Motor Vehicle Administration, Christine Nizer, said that the state reviewed the impact of the change and found it won’t worsen air quality or negatively affect marginalized populations. She noted that a state commission is reviewing the various ways that transportation programs are funded in the state, including fees and taxes, and could recommend changes.

The logo for the Maryland Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program is posted on a  sign at the testing station near Annapolis on Sept. 1, 2023.
The logo for the Maryland Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program is posted on a sign at the testing station near Annapolis on Sept. 1, 2023. (Pamela Wood)

Treasurer Dereck Davis, another Democrat on the Board of Public Works, said he saw value in relieving more drivers from the burden of having to go through tests every two years that they’re almost certain to pass.

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If the concern is about the state missing out on emissions fees, Davis said, then perhaps the vehicle registration fee could be increased for vehicles that are exempt from emissions, including the newer cars and electric cars.

“But don’t make them waste their time, and go through that charade ... when you know what’s going to happen anyway,” he said.

Ultimately, Lierman, Davis and the third member of the board, Democratic Gov. Wes Moore, all voted for the revised contract.