The way I see it AirCare was the first carbon tax. I happen to like carbon taxes. But I don't like AirCare as it's currently delivered in British Columbia.
Today CKNW News has AirCare in its sights for the popular Waste Patrol series. Reporter Janet Brown first presented her findings on the Morning News program with host Philip Till. Brown's report details the costs, and in an interview she discovers that the salaries and administration of the AirCare program (which runs its operations in a separate office than Translink) is $1.8 million for 11 employees. This amount is over and above the $15 million to run the program, and the compensation is paid out of the fees collected at the testing stations.
Last December I had my vehicle (an eleven-year old, well-maintained SUV) AirCare'd again, and it passed. I was so ticked at the time and cost ($45 + HST) of the program I tweeted out my unhappiness, suggesting that we rethink the program. Within minutes AirCare reps were responding in defense over Twitter. It was evidence to me that they are extremely sensitive about their public reputation. With millions at stake and many union jobs, AirCare doesn't dare let the public rally against the program.
AirCare was born in 1992 in part to the growing consciousness about air quality. Vancouver policy wonks might recall this is the time when "Clouds of Change", the city's influential commitment to reducing greenhouse gases by shifting away from single occupancy vehicles was born. Prior to AirCare there had been a government run program to test motor vehicles, though it hadn't been operational for almost a decade. When AirCare was born public sentiment was generally favourable to the program. However, in two decades of operation the public's support seems to be shifting away from continuing the program.
The arguments against continuing AirCare in BC after their contract expires in 2012 seem to outweigh reasons for keeping it. Yes, pollution emitting vehicles are taken out of service as a result of the tests, but the number of vehicles is declining due to higher quality of emissions controls. In his fascinating essay "Million Dollar Murray", author Malcolm Gladwell uses vehicle emissions testing as an example of poor use of limited public resources.
In (automobile emissions specialist Donald) Stedman's view, the current system of smog checks makes little sense. A million motorists in Denver have to go to an emissions center every year—take time from work, wait in line, pay fifteen or twenty-five dollars—for a test that more than ninety per cent of them don't need. "Not everybody gets tested for breast cancer," Stedman says. "Not everybody takes an AIDS test." On-site smog checks, furthermore, do a pretty bad job of finding and fixing the few outliers. Car enthusiasts—with high-powered, high-polluting sports cars—have been known to drop a clean engine into their car on the day they get it tested. Others register their car in a faraway town without emissions testing or arrive at the test site "hot"—having just come off hard driving on the freeway—which is a good way to make a dirty engine appear to be clean. Still others randomly pass the test when they shouldn't, because dirty engines are highly variable and sometimes burn cleanly for short durations. There is little evidence, Stedman says, that the city's regime of inspections makes any difference in air quality.
Trying to "beat" the emissions standards – such as this tip here – is another reason for the inherent unfairness of this program. As Gladwell writes, many of us just have to run our engines hot and burn a bunch of fuel to pass. Gladwell's article describes how more "random" testing works in an American city.
A few miles northwest of the old Y.M.C.A. in downtown Denver, on the Speer Boulevard off-ramp from I-25, there is a big electronic sign by the side of the road, connected to a device that remotely measures the emissions of the vehicles driving past. When a car with properly functioning pollution-control equipment passes, the sign flashes "Good." When a car passes that is well over the acceptable limits, the sign flashes "Poor." If you stand at the Speer Boulevard exit and watch the sign for any length of time, you'll find that virtually every car scores "Good." An Audi A4 —"Good." A Buick Century—"Good." A Toyota Corolla—"Good." A Ford Taurus—"Good." A Saab 9-5—"Good," and on and on, until after twenty minutes or so, some beat-up old Ford Escort or tricked-out Porsche drives by and the sign flashes "Poor."
If we're really concerned about emissions and the abuse of our air shed, why not apply more random testing of older vehicles instead? That's the crux of Gladwell's argument.
My colleague Daniel Fontaine proposed over a year ago that instead of paying $45 to AirCare that we skip the trip to the testing station and give that money to pay for transit and transportation instead. I wholeheartedly agree with this idea, on the condition that the governing body Translink is indeed run as efficiently as the public expects. I don't think it was without reason that Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts suggested that Translink be audited. Since Metro Vancouver mayors are now calling on the public to pony up for a vehicle levy (always an unpopular political move) then let's consider the idea of continuing to pay the same fee, but allocating it to Translink without vehicle testing.
People hate taxes, so it's not a surprise to me when we shake our fists at forty-five dollar fees. However, if we want top notch transportation infrastructure, the public must expect to pay for it somehow. I think a start is to change how we do emissions testing, and find better use for the millions we collect from drivers.
What do you think?
- post by Mike