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Cash for Clunkers

Some local governments offer money to people who trade dirty cars for clean ones. Let's help the scheme go national. What would it take to get...

Some local governments offer money to people who trade dirty cars for clean ones. Let's help the scheme go national.

What would it take to get you out of that old jalopy and behind the wheel of a shiny new hybrid? Vancouver will give you a couple thousand bucks. Texas might give you up to $3,500.It's a concept called "Cash for Clunkers," though the individual programs each carry their own names ("Drive a Clean Machine" in Texas, "Scrap-It" in Vancouver), and the idea has recently hit the national stage. It doesn't seem, however, like all Americans are going to be able to cash in on their gas guzzlers. At least not yet.Here's how it works: The government offers a credit to anyone who trades in an older vehicle that doesn't achieve certain fuel efficiency standards, and that cash can only be spent on a new, higher miles-per-gallon car or truck. Some programs, like Vancouver's, will also trade you a bicycle or let you use your credit on public transportation fares.On paper, "Cash for Clunkers" hits something of an immediate domestic policy trifecta: it reduces our dependence on foreign oil; it saves Americans dollars at the pump, allowing for increased consumer spending (and the economic stimulus that generates); and it should help bolster the sputtering market for Detroit's latest offerings.And that's not to mention the environmental benefits, which could be huge. (Does that make it a quadrafecta? A superfecta?) Gather this-American cars more than 12 years old account for only 25 percent of the miles driven in the United States, yet they produce roughly 75 percent of all automobile-born pollution, including greenhouse gasses and low-level pollutants like ozone and fine particulates that wreak havoc on the lungs of urban dwellers.As Congress frets about what does and doesn't get funded in this stimulus plan, "Cash for Clunkers" should stand out as a simple and streamlined way to get money into the pockets of the most economically distressed, while boosting much-needed sales for the Big Three, helping move America beyond oil, and lessening our nation's carbon emissions. On Friday, however, such an old car scrappage proposal was dropped from the Senate's version of the stimulus bill.Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, has proposed a "Cash for Clunkers" amendment that would "offer $10,000 to any moderate- or low-income consumer who trades in a car or truck that is at least 10 years old and buys a new one that is more fuel-efficient and ‘assembled in the United States.'" Ultimately it was the latter caveat that killed the plan (critics said it reeked of protectionism), though the $16 billion price tag didn't help.

It might yet be for the best, as there's another "Clunkers" proposal floating that seems better thought out and would likely find broader support. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced a bill back in January, not tethered to the stimulus plan, that would reimburse drivers with a credit of $2,500 to $4,500 for cars and trucks that get less than 18 miles per gallon. Unlike Harkin's proposal, credits can be used on any fuel-efficient vehicle ("with a fuel economy rating that exceeds the CAFE target for that class of vehicle by at least 25 percent") regardless of where it's assembled, or for public transit fares. They estimate that the plan would replace one million inefficient cars from our national fleet every year for four years. (And to ensure that this would actually get cars off the road-and not just off of blocks in the front yard-the vehicle must be currently registered and in drivable condition).Senator Collins said the legislation would save 80,000 barrels of motor fuel every day. Senator Schumer pointed out that the deal is a "better trade-in offer than they could get from any car dealership" and would help consumers overcome the catch-22 of being stuck driving an inefficient-and thereby more expensive to operate-vehicle because the prohibitive cost of buying a newer, cheaper to drive ride.The plan, still, is not without detractors, even from within the environmental community. Cars take a lot of energy and resources to produce, and Rob Ingles over at The Vine brings up the "headache" of balancing such a complex cost-benefit analysis: "It'd be difficult to verify the annual mileage of any given clunker, and, even if it were possible, a program that based trade-in eligibility on having some minimum annual mileage might create a perverse incentive to drive more." (And, besides, don't greens just categorically hate cars anyway?)Forget the knee-jerk resistance to paying people to buy cars and recognize the potential for this program as a useful tool in developing an ultimately carbon-free American vehicle fleet, providing some essential economic benefit in the short term.

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