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Transportation program needs re-evaluation

I got a letter in the mail from the state Department of Transportation the other day. It was time, I was told, to ante up $75 for a new registration on my mid-sized 2007 Honda CR-V.

I got a letter in the mail from the state Department of Transportation the other day. It was time, I was told, to ante up $75 for a new registration on my mid-sized 2007 Honda CR-V.

But before I could get the new sticker for my license plate, according to the letter, I also had to drive what I still think of as a new car to a vehicle emissions testing facility so they could make sure I was not spewing anything dirty into the atmosphere - other than, I guess, choice expletives.

This perplexed me since, before the Honda, I had a 1995 Saturn that leaked more oil than BP and belched more noxious fumes than all Wisconsin's politicians combined. According to the state's Vehicle Inspection Program website, the Old Belcher - if I still had it - would be exempt from such testing.

The average Holstein emits more foul stuff from its rear, I'd wager, than my little Honda. And yet that's the one I had to drive on in.

At least some state employees have to realize the absurdity here because eight or nine years ago Wisconsin's Legislative Audit Bureau looked into the emissions testing program - and for good reason. While drivers in seven counties in the southeastern part of Wisconsin with cars made between the late 1990s and, for the most part, 2007 are the only ones who are required to have their cars' emissions checked, taxpayers across the entire state - from Grant County to Green Bay, from Bayfield to Bayside - have to pay for the program through both those registration fees and per-gallon fuel taxes.

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The cost of the program is down in recent years, but still runs taxpayers in this debt-ridden state - or fee-payers, if you'd rather - $3.5 million per year. Checking to see if newer car's emissions are under acceptable limits, in the meantime, is sort of like checking to see if Aaron Rodgers has fingers.

The fact is that literally 99 percent of 3-year-old cars tested at the time of the LAB audit passed the emissions test. Testing cars that are less than five years old is a colossal waste of time and money. In fact, making people drive cars of any age to a special emissions testing center is a colossal waste of time and money.

"I don't see the purpose," said Jewel Green, a Milwaukee woman getting her 2005 Elantra tested in the city. After passing our tests, she and I both walked in and paid our registration fees at the facility. To add insult to inconvenience, we were both told we had to pay an additional $10 to get a new registration sticker there and avoid having to send for it through the mail. I wanted mine on the spot, so my total bill was $85.

Feel like they're milking us a little here? I asked Jewel.

"A lot bit," she said.

Twenty-five years ago, the tests - part of a program to limit air pollution and remain compliant with federal laws - served a purpose. Nowadays, newer cars burn clean, and almost all cars on the road have computerized testing systems that can be accessed by just about any auto mechanic down the street. Eventually, state officials tell me, we might be able to just bring cars in for testing there. Eventually, we might even be able to have them tested remotely. But not yet.

Oh well, government is always running a little behind the times. I guess I should just be happy with the knowledge that my car is not causing any needless damage to the environment - except, of course, when I am forced to burn enough gas and emit enough pollutants to drive it 20 miles to the emission testing place and 20 miles back home in order to prove it.

Mike Nichols is a syndicated columnist who spent 18 years writing about Wisconsin for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is now a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. This column represents only his personal opinion. Contact him at MRNichols@wi.rr.com .

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