Dead End

I still see you in your googly-wheeled Escalade, alone, cruising down the HOV lane at rush hour sporting your sky-blue "alternative fuels" license plate.

But I no longer reach from my own fumigating jalopy to offer the spiteful spike of my middle finger. I have sold my portable tire spikes.

Because my rage has grown old and feeble from time and compromise. You have been driving past for three long years now. In that period, you've morphed into just another accepted pain of living, like zits, the crickets that keep me up at night or KAET's Horizon show with Michael Grant.

Three years. Thirty-six months.

It seems like just yesterday that we were becoming aware of that little piece of legislation from former House speaker Jeff Groscost. If you buy a new vehicle with a secondary fuel system that allowed it to run on natural gas or propane, the state of Arizona would pay for the alt-fuel conversion and 30 percent of the full price of the vehicle. And you'd get those cool alt-fuels license plates that would allow you to drive alone in the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes. When it quietly passed the Legislature, it was estimated that the program would only cost the state between $2.5 million and $10 million.

Oops. They forgot the greed dividend. Final cost: $200 million.

People bought the most expensive car they could because that meant bigger payouts from the government. Car dealers charged $10,000 a pop for the alt-fuels conversions worth $1,500 because buyers just didn't care. The state, after all, was paying for the gouging. About 5,000 new car buyers snagged the deal of their lives before the Legislature closed the door on the feeding frenzy in December of 2000.

The legislators' mitigating action that December took the spiky edge off my rage. Indeed, that's exactly what their legislation was intended to do: quell the growing public rage.

Besides shutting the door on several thousand wanna-be pickpockets, the legislation forced those who did get the rebates to prove to the state Department of Revenue that they were actually using alternative fuels in their vehicles. Owners would have to show receipts for fuel purchases of propane or natural gas to avoid having their lump-sum tax credits revoked.

Reforms included:

The vehicle would have to be registered in Arizona for 36 months.

Propane gas users would have to prove they used that fuel 50 percent of the time for the next 36 months.

Natural gas users had to prove they used the fuel 25 percent of the time the first year, 33 percent the second year and 50 percent the third year.

I didn't think at the time to ask what happens after 36 months. It seemed like an eternity in boondoggle years.

That thought just crossed my mind while sitting in traffic the other day.

What I have found out is that nothing happens after 36 months. No more reporting. No more regulating. Nothing.

Which means that only now will we begin experiencing the full idiotic horror of the state's alt-fuels program.

The bottom line: All those folks who made a killing off the program can, in the coming months, begin mothballing their alt-fuels tanks. No more mandatory helping the Valley's air. And they're still home free in the HOV lane in luxury vehicles we paid for.

Ah, road rage, my old friend. Welcome back.

"I'm guessing that about 90 percent of the people with those systems will stop using them in the next year," says Norman Schoenradt, manager of Parnell USA, one of the few reputable shops left in the Valley for installation and repair on alt-fuel conversion vehicles. "What little benefit we saw from this mess will be mostly up in smoke."

Why? Because most people signed up for this clean-air program simply to get a cool truck cheap.

And for the most part, the alt-fuel tanks have been a pain in the asphalt for owners. Propane and natural gas is still hard to find in the Valley. And most of the 50 or so shops that sprang up to do alt-fuel conversions and repairs have disappeared. About half of the systems on Valley cars, remaining dealers estimate, were poorly designed, poorly built or improperly installed.

Now, even quality alt-fuel systems are getting old. They are beginning to need maintenance and repairs. And who is going to spend the money on a repair when it costs nothing to shut off the system and run on gasoline?

"The only folks we're going to have left using propane and natural gas are the ones who actually want to do something good for the environment," says Schoenradt, who has been installing and servicing alternative-fuel vehicles for eight years. "We've discovered that doesn't make up too many of the people who bought the vehicles.

"In a couple months, all you'll have will be people running on gas but reaping all the rewards of the program."

And in coming months, the market effect of Arizonans not having to use their propane and natural gas tanks will begin to be felt. As alternative-fuel stations lose customers, fueling stations very likely will close.

"I already drive 25 miles out of my way to get fuel," says Kevin Fern, who services the systems as manager of Crafttech Vehicle Services.

"I worry that the people who believe in cleaner-burning fuels are going to have even more supply problems," says Fern, who runs his own truck on 100 percent alt fuels and who, get this, did not take the tax credits because he "felt the program was too much about greed."

Another problem, I hate to say, is that as people have better reason to assume those vehicles are running on gasoline, the more road rage you'll see on Valley freeways.

I don't believe this is an idle concern. As I began to understand the ramifications of the end of this 36-month graceless period, I began fantasizing again about building my own vehicle modification -- the Automated Tire Spike Ejector Unit, which, in laymen's terms, is a CO2-powered, left-aiming, hood-mounted harpoon with a nail-enhanced razor-wire tether.

(For those interested, I'll be selling these $1,500 units for $10,000 a pop. My gouging of you will be mitigated by tax relief under my proposed Arizona Tire Air Abatement Program.)

Perhaps a better solution is for the Arizona Legislature to impose requirements for keeping those alt-fuels plates. If you want to keep the plates, you must continue to show fuel receipts each year proving the vehicle uses cleaner-burning fuels at least 50 percent of the time.

Otherwise, I fear my own fly-by-night operation offering overpriced state-financed shoddy workmanship will end up reaping me upward of $200 million in tax-exempt profits.

And I'd just hate for such a thing to happen to the state again.

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Robert Nelson