NJ -- Inspespection Fix on Target; E-Z Pass Delayed

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Inspection fix on target; E-ZPass delayed

Saturday, March 18, 2000 By BRUNO TEDESCHI Trenton Bureau

State transportation officials said Friday they are making progress on repairing the troubled vehicle inspection system and vowed that it would be fully operational by their deadline of June 30.

But the officials could not say the same for getting E-ZPass up and running on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Turnpike Executive Director Ed Gross said the much-anticipated but long-delayed electronic toll system will not be ready until Aug. 1 at the earliest. The system was supposed to start on May 22 and be accompanied by a toll hike, which also will be delayed.

"Last week, we took a very good look at the progress of construction, and our conclusion was we could not make the May 22 [deadline] and deliver a quality system that would work efficiently and safely," Gross said.

Having just suffered through the vehicle inspection fiasco, transportation officials are being especially cautious about launching another complicated system, such as E-ZPass, that could fail and cause problems for motorists.

"Just the testing for this system is going to be 30 or more days," Gross said. "We're not going to put a system on the road that is not perfect. We have to protect our toll revenue and we also have to protect the motorist."

It is a striking contrast to the way the state Department of Transportation handled the vehicle inspection system. The state and its contractor, Parsons Infrastructure & Technology Group, were scrambling to meet a Dec. 13 deadline or face the loss of highway dollars from the federal government.

As a result of the mad rush to meet the deadline, the state overlooked or missed problems that eventually led to a partial shut

down of the central inspection stations after motorists were forced to wait in long lines.

Many of the problems were foretold in memos written by one of the state's contractors, Sierra Research. For the most part, the memos were ignored by state officials overseeing the new test.

The fiasco is being investigated by the State Commission of Investigation, a three-person panel headed by former state Supreme Court Justice Alan B. Handler, and a Senate committee.

Currently, only 15 of the 32 central inspection stations are conducting the new emissions test, which requires a car to drive on a treadmill-like device known as a dynamometer that simulates real driving conditions.

Transportation Commissioner James Weinstein said Friday that all 32 stations should be ready to offer the new test by the end of June. The goal, he said, is to inspect as many as 12 cars per hour in each lane, up from the four or five that had been common when the new tests were being offered in January.

"We are making significant progress," Weinstein said.

The state continues to pay Parsons, most recently releasing $5.5 million for construction costs and $2.3 million for conducting emissions testing. Another $892,000 payment is awaiting state approval. The state has paid a total of $106 million to the company.

Democrats criticized the state for paying Parsons because they say the company has not provided a detailed enough plan for fixing the inspection system.

"This is pouring taxpayer money into a never-ending sewer without a return of services which has been promised for more than two years," said Assemblyman Neil M. Cohen, D-Union County, a persistent critic of the inspection system.

Weinstein defended the payment.

"We believe it's a payment that's not only justified and, frankly, that's important in terms of fully implementing this project," Weinstein said. "So it's a good-faith payment."

One of the major problems officials are working to correct is the insufficient training for inspectors. Previously, inspectors received only 40 hours of training. They all received an additional 40 hours, and all new employees will get 80 hours.

Weinstein said Parsons has hired 1,000 full- and part-time employees to staff the central inspection lanes.

Copyright ) 2000 Bergen Record Corp. http://www.bergen.com/region/dmv318200003181.htm

-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 18, 2000

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