Drivers of newer cars, trucks and SUVs may soon get a longer reprieve from vehicle emissions testing in Maryland as the state puts into place new regulations.

Currently, owners of brand-new vehicles don’t need to go through the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program for the first three years after purchase. That is likely to soon stretch to six years, as the state implements new rules that were adopted earlier this year.

The reason for the switch, says state Environment Secretary Serena McIlwain, is that vehicle technology has improved so much that newer cars and trucks are almost always passing their emissions tests.

“Why require a Marylander to go and take your car in for emissions, when we know — in those years with the technology in the cars — that the car will pass?” McIlwain said in an interview.

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Once a vehicle is old enough to require testing, the tests must be done every two years at a cost of $14 for a regular test or $10 at a self-service kiosk.

The change — which was previously contested by some environmentalists — was put on the books officially in January, but only now is being implemented as the state signs off on contract changes with the vendor that runs the 18 inspection stations and 10 self-service kiosks.

The Maryland Board of Public Works — composed of the governor, comptroller and treasurer, all Democrats — is set to vote Wednesday on the revised contract with Envirotest Corp., a Baltimore company that’s been running the VEIP program since 2009.

If the contract modification is approved, it’s expected to take a few more weeks for Envirotest to update the VEIP program.

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.

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The emissions program, launched in 1984, only operates in higher-pollution areas of the state. Allegany and Garrett counties in Western Maryland, St. Mary’s County in Southern Maryland and several Eastern Shore counties are exempt from the program. Electric vehicles are exempt from testing.

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)

The shift from the three-year exemption to a six-year exemption originated during former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration. Hogan’s team encountered some difficulty getting the change past a committee of lawmakers that reviews regulations.

Ultimately, the regulation change went into effect shortly after Gov. Wes Moore took office in January, but his team put on hold actually implementing the change.

After review, McIlwain and Christine Nizer, administrator of the Motor Vehicle Administration, said they’re comfortable that the change won’t worsen air quality or negatively affect marginalized populations. The state proceeded with modifying the contract with Envirotest.

McIlwain and Nizer have been talking to environmental advocates to explain the proposal ahead of Wednesday’s vote in hopes of blunting any opposition.

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Last year, the state tested about 293,000 cars that were model years 2018 and 2019 — the group that would now be newly exempt from testing — and 290,000 of them passed, a pass rate of nearly 99%.

McIlwain said some states have even longer exemptions for new-model vehicles, including neighboring Delaware at seven years and California — where she was a top official — at eight years.

“From my perspective, it makes sense to push it out as much as we can when we know the outcome,” she said. “Six years is reasonable. Eight years is reasonable as well.”

Josh Tulkin, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, said his group had concerns about an initial version of the rule change that would have exempted certain heavy-duty trucks. But that provision was stripped out.

Based on the rule change as it stands now, Tulkin said it’s likely to have only a minimal effect on air quality, one that’s more than offset by other actions the state is taking to promote cleaner vehicles.

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There remains, however, a concern that there will be a further disparity in who is paying for the overall cost of the vehicle emissions program.

“This particular change decreases the cost for new car purchasers,” Tulkin said. “It’s not increasing the cost for other people, but it does — even if marginally — shift the balance of cost burden. It is really important for the state to ensure an equitable distribution of costs for these critical programs.”

Tulkin said he plans to raise that issue as a member of a state commission that is reviewing how the state pays for its various transportation programs.