Charissa Barnes remembers when Bexar County had the opportunity to voluntarily create a vehicle emissions testing program.

The San Antonio native, who grew up in the automotive business alongside her father and now owns a chain of auto inspection stations here, has long been involved in statewide and local efforts to stay in compliance with federal clean air standards.

She remembers when the San Antonio and Austin regions, and a handful of counties in northeastern Texas, weighed in the early 2000s whether to create voluntary agreements among regional, state and federal authorities to help these areas meet new stricter federal air quality standards.

While San Antonio led the nation by becoming the first region to enter into such an agreement, its plans did not include a vehicle emissions inspection and maintenance program — whereas Travis and Williamson counties’ plan did.

Today, the Austin region is still in compliance with federal clean air standards. San Antonio fell into nonattainment status in 2018 and was further downgraded last November from “marginal” to “moderate” nonattainment.

It will now face stricter federal regulations, including rolling out a now-mandatory vehicle emissions inspection and maintenance program that will be overseen by the state.

Barnes, who has served as a member of the Texas State Inspection Association and the Alamo Area Council of Governments’ Air Improvement Resources Executive Committee, has concerns about the proposed rollout of the new program, particularly about inspection shops’ costs to become emissions testers and whether testing fees will make it worthwhile.

Charissa Barnes at one of her 7 vehicle inspection shops Official Inspection Station. Federal requirements require inspection stations in Bexar County to have emissions analyzers in place to begin emissions testing no later than Nov. 7, 2026.
Charissa Barnes, seen at one of her seven vehicle inspection shops in Bexar County, is concerned that the fees for vehicle emissions testing may not be high enough for shops like hers to invest in the equipment and training necessary to participate in the program. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

San Antonio missed out on its opportunity to create a vehicle emissions inspection and maintenance program on its own terms, she said, and now residents, business owners and drivers will have to pay for it.

“We’re facing some real challenges,” Barnes said.

A missed opportunity

In 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened federal air quality standards for ozone, a key ingredient of smog that irritates and damages the lungs and has been tied to chronic conditions such as asthma. 

In response, local elected officials and air quality planners in Bexar County, which was already in what officials called “near-nonattainment,” proposed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that it create a voluntary plan to help meet the new standards and avoid federal mandates.

The TCEQ and the EPA got onboard, with the EPA eventually expanding the program nationally.

The idea was to allow each county or region to craft plans to meet federal standards yet still be driven by local desires and decisions.

In 2002, San Antonio became the first city in the nation to enter into an early action compact, which included anti-idling regulations, volatile organic compounds limits and the creation of a local emissions inventory, among other air quality improvement strategies.

“Staying in attainment was important from the economic development standpoint,” former County Judge Nelson Wolff told the San Antonio Report. “We knew it was important to try to remain in attainment.”

Austin and the northeastern Texas counties followed suit.

Austin’s plan differed from the other two in one major way, however; it included voluntary vehicle emissions testing, similar to what Houston and Dallas were already doing under federal mandate.

Barnes suggests San Antonio would still be in attainment today if it had also created an emissions program 20 years ago.

Michael Beeler and Charissa Barnes conduct a vehicle inspection at Official Inspection Station in San Antonio. Federal requirements require inspection stations in Bexar County to have emissions analyzers in place to begin emissions testing no later than Nov. 7, 2026.
Michael Beeler and Charissa Barnes work on a vehicle inspection at an Official Inspection Station location. Bexar County must have an emissions inspection program in place by the end of 2026. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

One of the reasons Bexar County didn’t pursue a voluntary emissions program at that time, according to an article in the Express-News, is the agency responsible for monitoring the county’s air quality insisted that vehicles were not the main cause of local air pollution.

It is a view the Alamo Area Council of Governments still holds today.

Conflicting data

Officials did discuss implementing an emissions inspections program as part of its early action compact, Wolff said.

But at the time, AACOG officials said data showed that pollution wafting in from other states, and even as far away as Mexico, and not vehicles, was the larger source of air pollution and that a vehicle emissions program wouldn’t have a good return on investment.

AACOG wasn’t the only entity pushing against emissions testing; San Antonio business leaders were also leery of the costs of such a program. Coupled with AACOG’s data, it seemed like an expensive strategy for minute benefits, Wolff told the San Antonio Express-News in 2003.

In Travis County, air quality officials came to a different conclusion. An October 2002 Austin American-Statesman story describing the proposed program noted that the region’s largest source of pollution was vehicle emissions, and it pointed out air quality improvements in Dallas and Houston after their programs were implemented.

Today, AACOG continues to insist that outside air pollution is a main contributor to the region’s air quality. As evidence, the agency points out that, despite decreased road emissions during the early days of COVID-19 lockdowns, Bexar County still experienced more high-ozone days in spring 2020 than it did the previous year.

In May 2022, Dianne Rath, AACOG’s executive director, urged the EPA to take that outside pollution into account and not move the region into moderate nonattainment. The EPA was unmoved.

Data collected by the Capital Area Council of Governments, Austin’s equivalent of AACOG — has maintained for the past 20 years that vehicle emissions “remain the largest source of NOx emissions within the region.”

Ground-level ozone, the ozone that is more dangerous to human health, is created by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of heat and sunlight.

“Austin is the only city of its size that is still in attainment,” said Travis County environmental project manager Adele Noel, who attributes that success to the emissions inspection program. “Meanwhile the EPA standard has kept getting lowered and lowered.”

Fiscal repercussions

Now, Bexar County doesn’t have a choice, and it’s going to cost everyone, according to a 2017 study led by Steve Nivin, associate professor of economics at St. Mary’s University.

The report found increased costs could range from $7.1 billion to $36.2 billion if the region were downgraded to moderate nonattainment, which is what happened in November.

Meanwhile, the process to implement a mandatory program, which will be run by TCEQ, is slow going. The EPA requires a program to be in place by the end of 2026. TCEQ mobile source programs work leader Sarah Thomas said the agency expects to finalize details of the program by the end of 2023 but then will need to hold public hearings on the proposed plans.

Those details include how much motorists will have to pay for emissions inspections, which in turn will affect how many auto shops choose to invest in the equipment and training necessary to perform the tests. TCEQ has said more than 450 testing stations will be necessary to opt in to the program in Bexar County.

Michael Beeler conducts vehicle inspections at Official Inspection Station in San Antonio, Texas. Federal requirements require inspection stations in Bexar County to have emissions analyzers in place to begin emissions testing no later than Nov. 7, 2026.
Michael Beeler conducts vehicle inspections at an Official Inspection Station location in San Antonio. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

Barnes worries that shops won’t make the investment if the payback isn’t sufficient. 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.

“Our industry believes it’s inappropriate for a state agency to set a fee,” she said, noting that, once set, fees can stay in place “for a decade or longer,” despite rising costs.

Barnes said she hopes she and others in her industry will be able to “provide inspectors and owners the ability to participate and give comment” to the TCEQ before it makes fee decisions.

But higher fees also mean a greater burden on Bexar County drivers, and as of now, there are no existing local programs to help low-income residents pay either the inspection fee or the cost of repairs if a vehicle fails.

While the state used to have a program in place to help low-income drivers with the inspection fee and with vehicle maintenance costs, it was cut by the state in 2017 on Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders.

Travis County has filled that gap in its jurisdiction by creating the Air Check Texas: Drive a Clean Machine Repair and Replacement Program, which offers “limited assistance for low-income individuals and families with eligible vehicles in Travis County” up to $600.

Lyle Hufstetler, natural resources project coordinator for AACOG, said AACOG is still having discussions with the county and city to create a similar program locally. He noted there are also exemptions for some vehicles under the state’s Department of Public Safety standards.

“We certainly realized the need is there,” he said. Census data shows San Antonio remains one of the country’s poorest major metropolitan areas. “There’s a lot of funding in the Inflation Reduction Act related to environmental justice and so we think there may be a pathway to access some of that.”

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Lindsey Carnett

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