Bexar County could see a mandatory vehicle emissions testing and maintenance program as soon as next year, state officials said Tuesday, a result of the Environmental Protection Agency downgrading the region’s air quality status late last year.

The new program will mean additional costs for Bexar County vehicle owners and local vehicle inspection shops.

The program, which will be overseen by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, must be in place by the end of 2026, but could be rolled out sooner, said an official with the agency during a virtual public meeting Tuesday attended by staff from the city, the county and local agencies involved in transportation and air quality.

The mandate to reduce air pollution comes from the EPA, which downgraded Bexar County’s air quality status in November from “marginal” to “moderate” nonattainment, triggering stricter federal regulations in an effort to bring the region’s air quality into federal compliance.

While the emissions inspection itself won’t be too costly — it is expected to cost between $11.50 to $18.50 per vehicle in addition to the $7 residents already pay for their annual safety inspection, according to the TCEQ — it could come with additional costs for residents who need to make repairs to their vehicles to meet emissions standards. This may be a burden for low-income residents who drive older cars. San Antonio recently reclaimed its status as the most impoverished major city in the country, according to 2020 census data.

The cost for local auto shops that choose to participate will be heftier. Emissions analyzers cost up to $8,000 to purchase or about $200 per month to rent, while the training costs per inspector runs about $500 per year, said Sarah Thomas, a TCEQ mobile source programs work leader. More than 450 testing stations will be necessary to adequately test all vehicles in Bexar County, Thomas said.

The TCEQ, which has the regulatory role of enforcing EPA Clean Air Act regulations in Texas, plans to submit proposed changes to the Texas Administrative Code that would allow the program in Bexar County and a state implementation plan by the end of May, Thomas said. The exact fee motorists will have to pay for the emissions inspection in Bexar County will be set during that rule making process.

If the proposed changes are approved, Bexar County residents will have 30 days to offer public comment.

The soonest a program could go into effect is Nov. 30 of this year, Thomas said, but she suggested the process would take longer, “because we don’t anticipate our rule-making and supervision to be finalized until the end of 2023.”

Federal requirements require stations in Bexar County to have emissions analyzers in place to begin emissions testing “no later than Nov. 7, 2026,” Thomas said.

There is no state or federal funding available for the city or county to assist low-income residents at this time, Thomas said Tuesday. There used to be a state program to assist low-income Texans with these costs, but Gov. Greg Abbot ended the program in 2017.

Last November, a staffer with the Alamo Area Council of Governments, which is charged with monitoring and studying local air quality, said the agency could potentially develop an aid program locally if the legislature declined to restart the statewide program.

Other Texas regions such as Austin-Round Rock, Houston-Galveston-Brazoria and Dallas-Fort Worth have had mandatory vehicle emissions inspection programs in place since the early 2000s.

Program AreaSafety Inspection FeeEmissions Inspection FeeRegistration FeeTotal to Motorist
Dallas-Fort Worth$7$18.50$8.25$33.75
Houston-Galveston-Brazoria$7$18.50$8.25$33.75
El Paso$7$11.50$8.25$26.75
Austin-Round Rock$7$11.50$8.25$26.75
Total cost to Texas motorists for their annual inspection and registration fees. Data courtesy of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Texans have been required to get annual vehicle safety inspections since 1951; emissions testing determines if a vehicle’s emission system and components are working properly. If they are not, owners are required to make repairs. The addition of an emissions test will add roughly 15 minutes to annual inspections for Bexar County drivers, Thomas said.

Motorcycles, newer vehicles, fully electric vehicles (as opposed to hybrids), and vehicles registered outside Bexar County that are primarily used in another county will be exempt from the annual emissions check, Thomas said, but city, county and business-owned vehicles will not be.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.