When I was in the Air Force, standard operating procedure was “Hurry up and wait.” You rushed double-time to get somewhere, only to stand in line for what seemed like hours. You rushed to complete a project by an imposed deadline, only to wait days or weeks for the powers-that-be to act on it or call you in to brief them.
This modus operandi applies to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) as well. Congress rushed to get the stimulus bill to President Obama for his signature in February, and at press time — six months later — barely 10% has been allocated, let alone spent. Managers who rushed to meet application deadlines are waiting to hear if their requests have been approved, mostly because their community hasn't been notified of what funds will be available.
Thanks to continuing declines in tax revenues at the city, county, and state levels, fleet budgets have been cut by up to 20%. Capital purchases, including new trucks, are the first to go. With vehicle replacement slowing or halted, fleets are aging. Older vehicles require more maintenance. Thus, as capital budgets decrease, maintenance budgets should increase.
After several years of experimentation, one operation serving a northern community developed premium specifications for dump trucks, plows, and salt spreaders. Stainless steel is requested whenever and wherever possible to ensure all wiring and lighting is sealed and protected. These measures yield lower operating costs and higher residual values, but increase the vehicles' initial purchase price.
Unfortunately, the stimulus package doesn't help with such laudable strategies. Most fleet-related funding, which is coming through the Department of Energy's (DOE) Clean Cities program and Office of Energy Independence as well as the EPA's Clean Diesel and Diesel Emissions Reduction programs, is for energy savings and environmental cleanup. It's designed to cover the purchase-cost difference between base vehicles and energy-saving specifications.
In other words, the stimulus package won't help you buy the truck, but it will pay to make it a hybrid (gasoline/diesel and electric/hydraulic) or an alternative-fuel vehicle (natural gas and electricity). And some programs, such as DOE's Alternative Fueled Vehicles Pilot Grant Program, require recipients to match awards by 50%.
This is fine if you want to upgrade your planned purchases, but first you must buy the truck. While “Cash for Clunkers” made headlines for ordinary car owners, there's no parallel program to help public fleet managers accomplish the same goal: remove fuel-inefficient, dirty vehicles from the road and replace them with more efficient, cleaner ones.
Instead, vehicles are becoming more expensive. Diesel emissions regulations that take effect Jan. 1, 2010, require new equipment for selective catalytic reduction (SCR) or enhanced exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) needed to lower oxides of nitrogen (NOx). The new systems add $6,000 to $8,000 to the list price of medium-duty trucks and $8,000 to $9,600 for heavy-duty (classes 7 and 8) trucks. These increases aren't covered by the stimulus package.
What may be eligible are retrofits of diesel oxidation catalysts (DOCs) and diesel particulate filters (DPFs). When added to pre-2007 exhaust systems, they reduce NOx and particulate matter. Check with your state funding agencies and with engine and equipment manufacturers because not all DOCs and DPFs are compatible with all engines and the EPA requires all alterations to exhaust systems to be certified.
Engine and truck manufacturers are reported to be stockpiling engines, but not in the quantities built before 2007. These engines will qualify under 2007 standards, helping to keep new-equipment costs down.
In the meantime, the consensus is that hybrid technologies have reasonable pay-back in limited applications such as refuse collection, boom trucks, and transit buses. But for the typical work truck, the potential savings just don't justify the additional investment of time and money required to find and apply for the specific stimulus program that will pay for a more expensive vehicle.
One manager said he'd have to own a particular vehicle for at least 35 years to break even. Managers would like to try the new technologies, but except for the refuse, boom trucks, and buses, hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles aren't cost-effective.
So we seem to be in a perfect storm of conflicting requirements, limited budgets, new regulations, pending funding, and increasing demand for the services your operation provides. Your talents have rarely been as stressed — or as critical to investing taxpayer dollars wisely — as they are today.
— Paul Abelson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former director of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Association, a board member of Truck Writers of North America, and active in the Society of Automotive Engineers.