The diesel derby

Aug. 14, 2007

As the screwdriver dug in, twisted and pried, I knew the demand change from officials would take at least a second or two off my run down the sleek stretch of timber.

As the screwdriver dug in, twisted and pried, I knew the demand change from officials would take at least a second or two off my run down the sleek stretch of timber.

For a 10-year-old Cub Scout, this was not going to garner any salutes from the Boy Scout crowd at the annual Pinewood Derby car race. After my red bomber clunked its way to a distant dead-last finish during preliminary heats of my rookie season, my dad and I were determined to track down the latest design enhancements the following year, even if it took to talking with some shady street racer character behind the local hardware store. Fortunately, we got all the tips we needed from my Wolf-badge-carrying comrades and decided to front-load my yellow streaker with a screw and some washers.

Possible disqualification, however, stepped in front of my starting line. The screw that was holding the washers in place on the bottom of my Pinewood burner was scraping against the elevated portion of the racing lane. The forced change was made and my car fought off the disability by winning its first heat before settling for third in the next. It still didn’t buy me a ticket into the Boy Scout fraternity, but all I really cared about was the derby ribbon I drove home with that night.

Road and bridge contractors might be feeling the screwdriver to their own livelihood in the very near future. A clean diesel policy group called the Northeast Diesel Collaborative (NDC) is urging all public contracting agencies and private developers involved in large projects in urban areas covering New England to make diesel retrofit a standard pre-bid qualification. The retro environmentalists also are asking those involved to specify stringent record-keeping, reporting and noncompliance penalty provisions in contract documents.

The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) quickly red-flagged this race to legislation. AGC believes the practice of requiring contractors to retrofit all of their equipment could wipe out the net worth of many construction companies, depriving them of their bonding capacity while simultaneously requiring them to make massive capital investments. Futhermore, the language of the requirement also is likely to undermine the competitive bidding process by giving a preference to companies operating new fleets. After initially only opening an 11-day window for comments, the NDC allowed more time so that the AGC could solicit feedback.

If you think this type of action is confined to the Northeast, then it is time to turn in your industry merit badges. States, counties and municipalities across the country just may shine this requirement into law and potentially blind contractors into bankruptcy.

I’m an asthmatic, so I will always support moves that allow us to breathe a little easier. However, even I think this one knocks the wind out of contractors, mainly because it will put thousands in jeopardy of losing their business—which makes this type of move more damaging than beneficial. Texas and California do have programs set up to assist contractors financially with diesel retrofits, and there is a chunk of highway funding under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality portion of SAFETEA-LU that could be used nationwide. But even if they are able to bulldoze money over the problem, there still are demand issues with the manufacturers. There are only a handful of aftermarket devices currently available for diesel retrofits, and if a new player wants to enter the market, it faces a lengthy approval process.

This emerging demand needs to be phased in at the speed of my red bomber. It took decades for the U.S. to tub dirty cars. Few things happen at the twist of a screwdriver.