Vehicle testing firm to be sold MARTA accused of mismanagement, shoddy facilities

Three states affected

Customer complaints had led to review of performance in Md.

August 30, 1996|By Melody Simmons and Marina Sarris | Melody Simmons and Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

The company hired by the state to administer a five-year $96.9 million contract for high-tech vehicle emissions tests is being sold amid charges of mismanagement and shoddy maintenance at testing centers in Maryland and Ohio.

MARTA Technologies Inc., a Nashville, Tenn., subsidiary of The Allen Group, a communications company, agreed this week to sell the company to Envirotest Systems Corp. and transfer contracts in three states.

Maryland officials said yesterday they were uncertain how the sale would affect operation of the state's Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program, often characterized by long lines and broken equipment. MARTA said service would not be disrupted.

The move surprised officials at the state's Motor Vehicle Administration, which in February launched an aggressive oversight of MARTA's 19 test stations in central Maryland after customer complaints, MVA Associate Administrator Anne S. Ferro said yesterday.

Because of the problems, the state has reduced the amount it pays MARTA by $110,000 since May. Still, Ferro said the company has shown improvement. She rated its current performance as "marginal," upgraded from "poor" this year.

Pending final approval by the companies themselves and the MVA, the sale would force a transfer of the state's Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program contract, Ferro said. That process was expected to begin next week.

"It was just a surprise," Ferro said. "We requested a meeting with them right away. We're very much on a fact-finding mission right now."

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. called for public hearings to ensure a smooth transition.

"The very least the legislature can and should do is conduct public hearings to make certain this program -- much detested by the public -- is able to run as smoothly as possible, and there is no deterioration of services because of this corporate acquisition," Miller said.

Officials with both companies said the transition, which is months away, should not affect service at the facilities MARTA operates and maintains in 13 counties and Baltimore.

"This should be a seamless transaction and totally invisible to the public," Envirotest chairman Chester C. Davenport said.

Besides Maryland, MARTA plans to transfer its other vehicle emissions contracts in Jacksonville, Fla., and Cincinnati to Envirotest for an undisclosed sum.

Robert A. Youdelman, a senior vice president with Allen, took issue with the state's characterization of MARTA's work as marginal, saying the company has done better than that.

"MARTA has been improving its performance, and the excessive waiting times have been all but eliminated," he said.

Youdelman explained that the Allen Group, whose primary business involves wireless communications, wanted to sell MARTA to get out of the auto emissions inspections business.

"The emissions testing business represents 5 percent of The Allen Group's revenue and 0 percent of our income," he said.

Allen officials stepped up negotiations with Envirotest when Ohio announced last week that problems at emissions stations there -- including concerns about the accuracy of test results -- would force them to terminate MARTA's contract.

Ohio officials charged that MARTA bungled "virtually every important aspect" of emissions testing at sites in Cincinnati -- including inaccurate test results on 300 vehicles, claims disputed by Allen executives.

"Stations did not open as scheduled, motorists had to wait in long lines, staffing was inadequate and equipment did not work right," said Donald Schregardus, Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency director.

Envirotest, based in California, ran Maryland's testing stations from the mid-1980s through 1994, when it lost the contract to MARTA. When bidding for the program, Envirotest did not score as well on a technical evaluation that rated equipment, station design and management -- but it offered a low bid of $94.3 million.

MARTA took over Maryland's testing program from Envirotest in January 1995, but was immediately beset by operational problems that forced the state to suspend vehicle inspections ,, for five months.

MARTA resumed testing in May 1995, but was plagued by reports of long lines at inspection stations, software glitches and discourteous workers. Ferro noted that the turnover rate among MARTA workers, who earn about $6 per hour, is 100 percent a year, comparable to a fast-food restaurant.

Ferro said MARTA's woes in Maryland forced state motor vehicle and environmental officials to form a team in February to oversee the emissions inspection program. Their efforts resulted in a recent upgrade of the MARTA contract from "poor" to "marginal" -- but still left room for great improvement, she said.

"Despite our attempts, this is a marginal contractor on all points," Ferro said. "They are not in compliance with every aspect of their contract."

MARTA has paid to repair 55 cars damaged by testing at its stations since January, state reports show.

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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