NJ - Auto Inspection Goal Missed; Computer Glitches

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Auto Inspection Goal Pushed Back Friday, June 30, 2000

By CHARLES STILE Trenton Bureau

Today was supposed to be the day when the state's new $500 million auto inspection system would be retooled. Motorists could show up at any of the state's 32 centralized stations, watch their cars spin on a treadmill device, and dash to their pass-fail verdict within five minutes.

It's not going to happen. Not yet, anyway.

Like numerous other deadlines leading up to the launch of the rigorous new smog-reducing inspection last year, the state and its embattled contractor, Parsons Infrastructure and Technology Group Inc., will not have the new, system in operation at every station today.

The deadline was pushed back to Aug. 1, approved by federal regulators who appear convinced that the state has made substantial progress in getting the program in place since its botched debut in December.

Parsons has made progress. Motorists are spending less time in line, and all but seven of the stations are operating under the new system. More than 90 percent of the lanes are available, and staffing has more than doubled.

But questions and doubts about the inspection program remain:

One of the inspection tests, designed to detect whether gasoline vapors are leaking from the engine, has not been installed, and it may be scrapped.

State environmental officials are concerned that the equipment used to analyze smog-causing emissions is not working accurately.

Repair shop owners, who paid an average of $50,000 for testing equipment, say the state's delays have hurt their business.

Today is the last day of a five-month breather granted by the Environmental Protection Agency in January to fix problems that surfaced after the program began Dec. 13.

From the start, the system was hampered by computer glitches, equipment breakdowns, and staff shortages, forcing some motorists to wait on line for as long as four hours. Fearing a repeat of the debacle, the state asked for the Aug. 1 extension.

The problem, they said, would be felt the worst at seven stations, including Montclair and Ridgewood, which have only two lanes and continue to use the older and easier-to-pass tailpipe test.

The state and Parsons said they wanted the extra month to hire more staff, expand hours, and switch to a new "appointments only" system by July 19 at the seven stations. Parsons has more than doubled its staff from 479 in December to 1,046.

EPA officials say the state has made a "good faith" effort to fix the system and appears on the verge of completing most of the project. The EPA is overseeing the system as part of a plan to clean up New Jersey's air by 2007.

Recent reports show that the centralized lanes are now inspecting, on average, about 7.6 cars an hour. But more important, the system is putting through an average of 12.5 cars an hour at the busiest "peak hours." Overall this past month, the average statewide waiting time was was nine minutes.

Parsons and state officials also acknowledged that they have not fully banished the dreaded lines at the stations. Parsons officials predict that long waits will continue at eight stations this summer, including the five-lane Lodi station. Motorists can expect to face an average wait of 41 minutes there, according to a Parsons report.

Parsons spokesman Carl Golden said the company planned to expand the Lodi station from three lanes to eight, but community opposition blocked the expansion. The station added two lanes, for a total of five.

"You would be hard pressed to say that the state has not fully invested in the program," said Mary Mears, an EPA spokeswoman. "They got the lanes running. They have got the staff on board to run the test. . . . We feel that they are implementing the program in good faith and will continue to do so."

Golden said the company will meet the Aug. 1 deadline.

"We are confident that the system will work the way that everyone, including Parsons, wants it to work," Golden said.

Leaking vapors

A two-pronged hose dangles from the ceiling near the end of the inspection lane at the Bakers Basin station near Trenton. One of those tubes flops aside without an attachment, and for now, without a purpose.

That tube was installed as part of a test to find out whether gasoline vapors are leaking from a car. But officials acknowledged this month that the "tank pressure test" might not be done as part of the inspection.

If Parsons and the state decide not to use the tank pressure test, the state will be forced to find other measures to comply with the federal Clean Air Act.

State officials say they have not decided whether to include the pressure tester and do not expect to have one made by Aug. 1. The state is experimenting with a plan that would allow a portable unit to be rolled out to inspect the vehicles when inspectors are looking at the driver's registration and license.

Equipment failures

The emissions analyzers are also the target of a tough, pass-fail exam by state inspectors. Many are failing, raising worries that the equipment used to analyze smog-causing emissions is not working properly.

State environmental officials found that 42 of the 73 emission-test systems, or 57 percent, failed when inspectors checked them this month. That is up from 30 percent in April.

The state Treasury Department has demanded that Parsons submit a report detailing how it intends to fix the problem. And Parsons is hiring experts to study the problem. Among the questions is whether the equipment measures emissions accurately in warm weather.

The failed test equipment -- which requires Parsons to shut down the lane and fix the problem before it can operate again -- does not necessarily mean that the system is flunking cars that should pass, DEP spokesman Peter Page said.

The audits indicate that analyzers may not be as accurate as the state is requiring under its contract with Parsons. But the DEP tests on the system are more rigorous than the pass-fail standards imposed on the cars.

Additionally, the equipment does its own internal check when it starts up, much the way a computer does. The system will shut itself off if it is not calibrated properly, Page said.

Angry mechanics

Repair shop owners are infuriated over Governor Whitman's decision in January to let 15 stations revert to the tailpipe test while Parsons fixed the new system over the past five months.

They say the move hurt their business by making it more attractive for motorists to take the older, easier-to-pass tailpipe test free of charge.

The new system is tougher to pass because emissions are tested when the car revs up to 15 mph on a treadmill-like device. Simulating driving conditions allows inspectors to gauge levels of smog-causing pollutants that are not normally detectable when the car is idling.

A state-funded $25 rebate paid to private garage owners who lowered their prices by the same amount has done little to soothe their anger. More than 157,600 motorists took advantage of the program, costing the state close to $3.94 million.

A less-used rebate offered by Parsons, in which the company paid garage owners $10 if they lowered their their prices by $20, is set to expire today. The company spent $350,000 on rebates since January. About 35,000 customers took advantage of the program.

With the two rebates together, some garage owners lowered their price for an inspection by $45.

Enzo Olivieri, a Montclair garage owner who has filed suit seeking to stop the state from continuing to use the tailpipe test, fears that it will become a permanent fixture of the centralized system. He does not believe that Parsons will ever fully convert to the new system.

Olivieri said a group of garage owners is planning to stop offering the new test next month as a protest over the state's and Parsons' handling of the program.

"We guarantee they are going to miss the Aug. 1 date," Olivieri said.

Trenton Bureau Correspondent Charles Stile's e-mail address is stile@bergen.com


-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), June 30, 2000

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