Valley gas guzzlers targeted

As the owner of a 1985 Ford Bronco, which got about eight miles to the gallon, no one suspected Frank Cipponeri of Modesto was part of the green revolution.

Several months ago, he accepted some "green" from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to help him replace the sport utility vehicle with a cleaner car.

With $5,000 from the air district, plus nearly $5,000 of his own money, he bought a 2005 Hyundai Elantra. The sedan has a better emission control system and burns less gasoline, getting 20 miles per gallon in town and 27 on the freeway, he said.

"With the Bronco," he said, "we had to doctor it up so it would pass a smog test every two years."

Cipponeri was one of only 45 valley residents to participate in the Polluting Automobile Scrap and Salvage program last year, which offers cash to retire older, polluting cars. Officials had yearned for a bigger response when they sent 5,000 letters to owners of vehicles that often fail smog checks.

To encourage more participation, officials made changes to the 2009 PASS program rolled out Monday. The district still is sending letters to owners of targeted vehicles, but valley residents from Stockton to Bakersfield can contact the air district to see if their car is eligible.

In the first three days of the campaign, 300 people called the toll-free number, officials said.

Owners may receive $1,000 to scrap a polluting vehicle or $5,000 toward the purchase of a newer car.

The air district has $2 million and will accept applications until the money is spent.

"Not all of the cars will be eligible for the $5,000 in assistance, but people can apply for both the $5,000 or $1,000 incentive," said Kevin Wing, a district air quality specialist. "What we are looking for is to get the emissions off the road."

Looking at smog test results

District officials are not concerned about the vehicle's age or model, but are most interested in how it has performed on smog tests.

Older cars with outdated emission controls may be eligible for the financial assistance, or it could be a newer lemon that frequently requires smog repairs. "We have seen data that most of those smog repairs don't last," Wing said.

Cipponeri said it took about three months for him and his girlfriend, Marie Rhea, to secure the financial assistance to purchase the Elantra. By searching a state database, the air district found that the Ford Bronco was among thousands of vehicles with a history of smog repairs, and sent him a letter in November inviting him to apply for the assistance.

After the retired mechanic applied, the district told him to take the Bronco to a smog station, where a test confirmed it was a gross polluter. The next step was choosing a car that met specified emission standards.

Cipponeri worked with Central Valley Automotive in Modesto to purchase the four-cylinder Hyundai in February. The Bronco was scrapped at a wrecking yard in Stockton.

With about 100,000 miles on a rebuilt engine, the '85 Bronco still had legs but probably was due for more smog repairs, Cipponeri said.

"It was sad parting with it, but it's a great opportunity to upgrade your vehicle and clean up the air," he said.

The program has some stipulations. Owners must agree to keep the cleaner vehicle for three years and fill out simple annual reports for the district.

This year, the PASS program has dropped the emission requirements for replacement vehicles because the regulations were confusing for applicants. The replacement cars, purchased from participating dealerships, must be 2006 models or newer.

Low-income residents have a broader selection, including models as old as 2003, so they are eligible for lower-priced cars.

More than half of the valley's air pollution comes from motor vehicle emissions. Officials hope the revised PASS program will remove more than 1,000 polluting cars from valley roads, although the district had no estimate on the reduction in air pollution. Funded by Department of Motor Vehicle registration fees, PASS is not the same as the federal government cash-for-cars program, which encourages people to trade in their gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient new vehicles.

Wing said the $5,000 incentive is reserved for replacing the dirtiest cars. Those who are eligible for the $1,000 incentive are instructed to take their vehicle to a contracting auto wrecker for a final inspection. If the final step is cleared, the contractor issues the $1,000 check and crushes the vehicle.

There is no expressed limit on the number of drivable cars people can retire, Wing said. While the program is geared for the public, the district will consider retiring cars owned by businesses.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or 578-2321.