Ending vehicle emissions tests hailed as victory for Tennessee taxpayers

Tennessee residents in Hamilton, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties no longer will have to complete emissions tests on their vehicles, starting Jan. 14.

The emissions change came after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved changes to Tennessee’s air quality plan. The news led several Republican state leaders to applaud the move, which they said will help taxpayers avoid unnecessary costs.

“Emissions testing has been an unfair burden not only on Tennessee taxpayers, but particularly our poorest residents who are forced to remedy auto issues they can’t afford,” Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said. “The testing no longer served a purpose as most modern vehicles are aligned with emissions standards. This long-awaited decision is a tremendous win for the people of Tennessee. My only regret is Rep. Mike Carter, who also worked relentlessly to end this now needless government program, did not live to see this day.”

The Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill in 2018 that would end emissions tests in the state 120 days after EPA approval of a new plan, which was submitted by the state in February 2020 and approved on Tuesday.

“Emission testing is not only time-consuming for taxpayers, but also completely unnecessary,” House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said. “Today’s vehicles are environmentally cleaner than ever before and Tennessee’s air quality is exceptional. I’m very proud we have finally eliminated this obsolete test that puts a terrible burden on lower income families and small business owners by forcing them to pay for needless repairs.”

Several lawmakers referenced the efforts of Carter, a former state representative who died in May from pancreatic cancer, as the person who pushed the changes.

“I am pleased to learn that the vehicle emissions testing program is finally coming to an end,” said Rep. Joan Carter, R-Ooltewah, widow of Rep. Mike Carter. “More fuel and energy efficient vehicles meant the program had largely outlived its usefulness, yet the financial hardship on the very Tennesseans who could least afford it remained in place. Thanks to Senator Watson, Leader Lamberth, [the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation], and all the great people across Tennessee who worked so hard to make this happen. Mike would be proud.”

While the program is ending in five of the state's six counties that require testing, Davidson County elected to continue vehicle testing, as Tennessee law allows it to do. Davidson County was the only county in the state with its own local air pollution controls program, meaning it was the only county eligible to continue the program, Metro Public Health Department spokesperson Brian Todd said.

The Metro Council voted in 2018 to keep the program.

“The concern was that EPA might authorize the elimination of testing programs but require in their stead an alternative that would be more difficult to enforce, more expensive or otherwise less preferable than the vehicle emissions testing program,” Todd said. “MPHD, therefore, asked the Council to retain control of the decision so that when the EPA’s position became known, the local government, as opposed to the state Legislature, could choose between the emissions testing program and whatever else would have been required to replace it.”

Metro Public Health's current emissions testing contracts end June 30, 2022, Todd said, and the program's future now can be determined since the EPA has reached a decision.

Davidson County tests any vehicle that was built in 1975 or more recently.

Tests cost $9. If your vehicle fails the test, it must be repaired and retested before the car’s registration can be renewed. Cars are allowed to be retested one time for free within 90 days of the initial test.

In the counties where testing is ending, the test still is required to register a vehicle on or before Jan. 13.

“This decision by EPA is a major step that means an end to mandatory tests of vehicles for many Tennesseans,” TDEC Commissioner David Salyers said. “It’s a recognition of the improvement of our state’s air quality and demonstrates the diligence Tennesseans have shown toward achieving and maintaining this goal.”

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