Need an emissions test to renew your vehicle registration? You may need to set aside a whole afternoon.

Staffing shortages and COVID-19 outbreaks at testing facilities have caused some of Nashville’s emissions testing sites to shut down. Most recently, the Hermitage emissions testing site operated by Opus Inspections was closed for several days due to staffing shortages. It reopened Monday.

At one point Tuesday afternoon, 44 cars waited in line at the vehicle inspection site in Hermitage, and more than 40 at Opus’ location on Antioch Pike.

Even with two lines operational at each site, the wait time for an emissions test was well over an hour. That’s on a mid-month Tuesday. Operators say lines are typically longer at the beginning or end of a month, and on weekends.

Long wait times for emissions testing are more than just an inconvenience like delays due to staffing shortages at restaurants and other businesses. Emissions testing is required to legally register a vehicle in Davidson County, impacting residents’ ability to drive a legally registered car. Motorists are required to pay a $9 fee for the service, a portion of which is remitted to Davidson County.

Nashville’s Vehicle Emissions Program is run by Opus Inspections, a contractor overseen by the Metro Public Health Department. Opus is also contracted by the State of Tennessee to operate testing centers in Rutherford, Sumner, Wilson and Williamson counties.

But staffing shortages and outbreaks of the coronavirus are taking a toll on the centers’ ability to stay open.

“We’re doing everything we can and continue to be creative,” Jon McKinley, vice president of engineering at Opus Inspections, told Main Street Nashville. “It is very difficult, in this environment, to hire and retain people.”

Opus has raised wages for testing center staff to start at $12 per hour and is offering a $750 signing bonus, paid in three installments at 30, 60 and 90 days of employment. Opus is also offering a referral bonus to existing staff who refer a new employee.

McKinley said there have been multiple positive exposures to COVID-19 at the stations, which have resulted in immediate closures.

“Opus has made an ongoing effort to maintain staffing levels,” said Brian Todd, a spokesperson for the Metro Public Health Department. “It has been a challenge, resulting in temporarily closing emission testing locations when they don’t have staff. … Being short staffed also can result in longer lines at the stations that are operating.”

Todd said that when an emissions site has to close due to staffing issues, Opus notifies Metro Health, and the department notifies the public via social media.

Metro has contracted with Opus Inspections to provide emissions testing since 2007. Its current contract expires next year and offers Opus between $2.3 million and $3.3 million per year to provide testing services across six locations in the county.

Meanwhile, customers are experiencing much longer wait times, often waiting more than an hour to get their vehicle tested.

McKinley says Opus’ goal is to have motorists wait no more than 15 minutes, though weekends and the end of the month usually bring higher traffic to the sites.

Drivers are not required to get an emissions test in Davidson County to renew a Davidson County registration. If wait times are shorter in neighboring counties, residents can go there for a quicker test.

Other counties have decided to do away with emissions testing altogether. Come January, Davidson County will soon be the only place in Tennessee where vehicle emissions testing is still required as a condition of legal registration.

That’s because the state legislature in 2018 passed a bill allowing counties to opt out of emissions testing, pending a rules approval from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. All counties that required testing at the time — except Davidson County — opted to end emissions testing.

In 2018, Metro Health advised the Metro Council not to end the vehicle emissions program.

“MPHD asked the Metro Council to retain control of the program in 2018 because it was unknown at that time what offsets EPA might require for counties eliminating their emissions testing program,” Metro Health wrote in a statement to the Metro Council earlier this year. “The concern was that EPA might authorize the elimination of testing programs but require in their stead an alternative that would be more difficult to enforce, more expensive or otherwise less preferable.”

EPA rules were approved in August. All other county vehicle emissions testing requirements will end in January 2022.

The future of vehicle emissions testing in Nashville is now in the hands of the Metro Council. It’s possible the body will take up legislation to consider ending or modifying the program before Metro’s contract with Opus expires. So far, no legislation on the matter has been filed.

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