Ada Eyes Canyon Emissions Tests

Red van operators fear airshed-wide contract


With Kuna and Canyon County set to start state-mandated emissions testing on June 1, some officials are feeling a little trampled upon.

"It's one of the most frustrating things as a local government official I've ever had to deal with ... It is Big Brother cracking down on Canyon County in the most abusive manner I've ever seen," Canyon County Commissioner Steve Rule said.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality says it's just doing its job, enforcing a 2008 state law requiring emissions control in Environmental Protection Agency-designated airsheds. Further, Canyon County had its chance to front its own mitigation plan but was rejected because it didn't meet the necessary level of pollution offsets.

"We're all in the same airshed, and we follow federal guidelines," said Pete Wagner, regional administrator for the Department of Environmental Quality in Boise.

While Canyon County may feel abused, cities in Ada County think the DEQ-imposed program might be a better option than their current emissions-testing system, which is carried out by an army of independently owned testing businesses collectively referred to as "little red vans" (even though not all are red and many are housed in portable buildings).

The bottom line: Canyon County's testing regime will be carried out over five years by Utah-based SysTech International at a price of no more than $11 a test.

According to SysTech, which estimates about 65,000 tests per year in Canyon County, $3 of that would go to DEQ for public outreach and the remainder would go to the company. More than 20 existing mechanics or lube shops will perform the tests as a sideline business, and a portion of the test fee--somewhere between $2 and $4--would go to the tester.

In comparison, Ada County's little red vans, which do about 130,000 tests per year, are allowed to charge up to $20--$3.50 of which goes to the Ada County Air Quality Board.

DEQ recently asked the board if it wanted to join Canyon in switching to SysTech. It's a move strongly supported by board member, Ada County Commissioner and Republican gubernatorial candidate Sharon Ullman.

"We need to be looking at a comparison of $20 with $11. Why should we overcharge people?" she said.

Ullman has put several motions before the air board in support of bringing SysTech to Ada County, though none have passed. At the March 18 meeting, board members voted to wait at least six months before making a decision and use Canyon County as a test case.

"We have a good system. We are satisfying DEQ and being proactive about what satisfies the EPA," said board chairman David Zaremba, who's also vice president of the Meridian City Council. "We do need to consider what is going to happen in Canyon County."

Emissions testers were relieved that they'll have a "six month reprieve," but many believe that's not enough time to assess SysTech. If Ada officials come down in favor of the company, testers have good reason to fear that the little red vans will be thrown under the bus. The last thing the county wants is a patchwork of testers with their own systems and policies.

SysTech President and CEO Lothar Geilen said there's a middle way. If the company runs emissions testing in Ada County, he said the red van owners could subcontract.

"We're trying to include as many red van operators as we can," he said. "We understand that it's socially responsible to include them."

Wilke Meyers, who operates Ace Emissions in the lot of the Overland Park Shopping Center, says that's nice to hear, but few if any of the current 49 testing operations could afford to stay in business if they were only making between $2 and $4 per car.

"If you put the numbers to it, there isn't any way that anybody just doing [tests] for a living can make a living," he said.

Even though Ada County testers are allowed to charge up to $20, many don't. Some offer promotions, discounts and coupons, others set their price as low as around $8.

Meyers charges an average $17 per test and takes home $13.50 per car after the air board takes its cut. With $1,000 a month in overhead, and a Jan. 1 switch from annual to biennial testing that halved his business, he's just making it with eight to 10 cars a day.

"It's not like anybody's sitting here getting rich doing this job," he said.

Geilen recognizes that, too.

"We have an $11 inspection fee, and the red van operators charge $20. The $9 difference that the motorist is paying today and may be saving tomorrow--that comes out of the red van operators' pockets," he said.

Joe Villareal and Bob Gallivan have owned Aires LLC and its two testing stations for the past five years. They fear that SysTech could cause 50 small businesses to go under.

"They want to go to Big Brother," said Gallivan. "I have a problem with that from the get-go."

Ullman thinks that's a misrepresentation.

"'Big Brother' is big government telling us we have to get our vehicles' emissions tested in the first place," she said. "But if we can get this government-mandated service for cheaper, and meet that need, I feel like it's worth it."

She also doesn't have much sympathy for the red vans.

"That we somehow owe them something, to keep them in business by overcharging Ada County residents--I just don't buy that," Ullman said. "Our obligation is to ensure the best possible service at the lowest possible cost."

For Villareal and other station owners, the issue comes down to competition.

"We're all about competition," he said. "If we need to go down to $10, we'll go down to $10. It's the American way."