Bungled state auto inspections Critical audit: 'Marginal' performance by contractor not good enough.

September 16, 1996

EVER SINCE the state changed to a new auto vehicle emissions inspection program in January 1995, it's been one headache after another. The main problem has been incompetence -- and worse -- by the company hired to run the program. State officials are fed up.

After he took over 13 months ago as chief of the Motor Vehicle Administration, a concerned Ronald L. Freeland ordered his internal auditors to examine the books of MARTA Technologies Inc., the Tennessee company that runs the state VEIP program. What auditors uncovered was shocking: Monetary irregularities, abysmal recordkeeping, poor staffing and malfunctioning equipment. Meanwhile, customer complaints of long waits and questionable employee conduct continued.

The situation was intolerable. That's why the MVA has been pressing the company hard to make changes. Since May, $110,000 in fees to MARTA have been withheld to force the firm to improve its performance. As a result, the company is doing a better job, though an MVA official still rates MARTA's work as "marginal."

Under ordinary circumstances, the MVA would probably kick the contractor out. But circumstances intervened. Ohio recently canceled its agreement with MARTA, a move that led MARTA's parent company, the Allen Group, to sell its subsidiary to the leading vehicle inspection firm in the U.S., Envirotest Systems Inc. Maryland officials expect markedly improved performance at its 19 inspection stations once Envirotest takes over.

Envirotest used to run the old VEIP stations in Maryland but lost to MARTA in a bitter bidding war in 1994 based on MARTA's superiority in technical competence. As it turned out, MARTA may have had the better technology, but not the better management.

A vocal segment of car drivers remains unhappy with the vehicle emissions inspection program, especially the voluntary treadmill test. Next June, that test becomes mandatory for all cars -- unless the legislature intervenes, which seems likely. Still, federal anti-pollution mandates make periodic car-emissions inspections inevitable.

What MVA is rightly focusing on is forcing the contractor to make these examinations quicker, simpler and more pleasant. Envirotest will be under the gun to improve emissions-inspection stations' operations in a hurry.

Pub Date: 9/16/96

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