NJ - Computer Glitches and Problems Prompts State Officials to Investigate Auto Inspection System

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Title: Tougher tailpipe tests to make slow return

Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/18/00


EWING -- Armed with additional employees, better training and souped-up computer software, workers at the state's 15 auto inspection stations where enhanced emissions tests were suspended will revert to the more stringent tests by June 30.

The conversion from the old curb-idle tests to the enhanced tests will begin in April.

Transportation Commissioner James Weinstein said yesterday state officials have met regularly with Parsons Infrastructure & Technology, the private company administering the federally required tests, and have approved its plan to remedy problems plaguing the new tests, which were inaugurated Dec. 13 and left angry motorists waiting hours for inspections.

Weinstein said the state agreed to pay Parsons $5.5 million of $10 million in construction costs that had been withheld until the company presented an acceptable plan for fixing the problems.

"It's clear the efforts that Parsons is making is having some benefit," Weinstein said. But state officials haven't signed off completely on the plan, Weinstein added. And when asked if he could trust Parsons, he replied: "I'll tell you that on June 30."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has pushed New Jersey to switch to the more sensitive, treadmill emissions tests to curb smog-causing exhaust, allowed the state to resume the curb-idle tests -- which are a faster, simpler method -- at 15 of the state's 32 testing stations where motorists waited the longest for inspections.

Despite warnings from a consultant -- correspondence state officials are now investigating -- the system Parsons put in service Dec. 13 suffered from a lack of staff, poor training and a host of computer glitches. Cold weather and mechanical problems also caused equipment to fail.

Weinstein said Parsons has promised to increase staff, adding more than 300 part- and full-time workers to its existing staff of 560.

The company will also step up training next week, offering a full 80 hours to new workers and an extra 40 to those already employed. A new generation of simpler computer software now runs the systems, and 95 percent of the treadmills cars ride on for the enhanced tests, which were quick to freeze in cold weather, are working, Weinstein said.

The state will now start working to convert the remaining curb-idle lanes to the new method before June 15, Weinstein said. How quickly work progresses depends on the improvements Parsons promised to make, he said.

Parsons spokesman Carl Golden said the company, which signed a $448 million contract for the project, is committed to making the new tests work. The June 30 deadline "gives us some breathing room," Golden said.

Spreading the phase-in over three months "gives us the opportunity to address any problems that do arise," he added.

One group not pleased with the plan is the Gasoline Retailers Association, which includes about 1,400 private garage owners who purchased $50,000-plus in equipment to be able to administer the tests.

The group threatened to file suit against the state for violating federal clean air laws. President Bill Dressler said the new tests are a crucial step to improving air quality, and by allowing the old tests to continue at 15 stations, the state is "circumventing" the law.

The June 30 date "doesn't cut it," Dressler said, explaining the group put off its lawsuit until it can meet again with state officials. "It's unac-ceptable."

Weinstein and Division of Motor Vehi-cles Director C. Richard Kamin agreed that private inspection sta-tions, which charge an average of $75 for the test offered for free at state sites, have not picked up the business officials hoped. Only 22 percent to 24 percent of the tests performed were done at private stations, not the 30 percent envisioned.

Weinstein also noted the state has tried to help these small business owners by reimbursing them $25 per test, which they must pass on to consumers. Nearly $1 million has been spent so far. Parsons will also offer a $10 refund to private inspec-tors, but few have taken advantage of this discount, Weinstein said.

Weinstein said the state will pay Par-sons $2.3 million for cars it tested before Dec. 13, a bill that was submit-ted late. State officials are also re-viewing an $800,000 Parsons bill from February, he said.

) copyright 2000 Gannett News Service



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