A Clunky Way to Spend Billions

07/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In this day and age of astronomical sums being bandied about like pocket change, a billion dollars -- or even four billion -- may not seem like a lot of money. But given that the United States is bleeding to death a billion at a time, when the pot is empty, every bit given must count.

That's why the recent Cash for Clunker legislation passed by Congress as part of the $106 billion war funding bill is a complete and total waste of a billion dollars short term, four billion long term, mired in more uncertainty than progress and totally ineffectual in helping either the auto industry, the environment or We, the People as a whole.

It started out as well meaning, but that road to hell now has pavement miles in thickness with all the good intentions heaped upon it over the years. And while getting Americans to trade in their old, gas-guzzling cars for newer, more fuel-efficient ones sounds fabulous on the campaign trail and in a news release, the implementation of that goal is as off-course as Columbus was when he accidentally bumped in to North America.

The first problem is that it doesn't do much, let alone enough. Getting someone to trade up for a paltry four miles per gallon increase is criminal in these days of war for oil. Yet, if someone does just that the dealer gets a $3500 voucher, assuming the trade in car is worth less than $3500 and the new car gets at least 22 mpg and doesn't cost more than $35k. Go from 18 to 28 mpg and get a $4500 voucher, again assuming your 18mpg or less vehicle is not worth more than $4500. Confused yet?

The part that adds insult to injury is that motorcycles are excluded from this particular bill. The one transportation alternative that is green, cuts costs, is better on the infrastructure takes exponentially less fuel to operate and can be obtained for under $10k, many under $5k wasn't even considered in this bill, at least not enough to add language for it.

That's upsetting to many in the industry, including Kathy Van Kleek, Vice President of Government Relations for the Motorcycle Industry Council.

"Any legislation designed to promote fuel efficiency should absolutely include motorcycles. Not only are they more fuel-efficient than automobiles and trucks, they help relieve congestion and have less impact on our transportation infrastructure. With energy conservation and the traffic congestion being two of the most pressing issues facing our nation today, use of these vehicles should be strongly encouraged," she commented.

A new bill, sponsored by US Senator Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA) and making its way through committee, would add motorcycles to the mix, but again with obtuse restrictions.

For instance, a person could only buy a motorcycle valued over $7000 and under $20,000 and it would have to get at least 40mpg (not a problem). That means that many fabulous alternatives, ones available right now to save the planet, save money and decrease traffic headaches can't even be considered. Piaggio USA is the parent company of Vespa, the most respected brand of scooters in the world. Their sales soared last year as did every other maker of scooters like Honda and Yamaha as Americans realized it's easier to fill up three gallons at $4 a gallon than 15; Yet, no love for them.

Piaggio and Vespa scooters, both 150 and 250cc, get over 70 miles per gallon; some get over 100. They range from $1500 on the low end to $5500 for a Vespa 250 or 300. Those are freeway compatible, can split lanes in a few states, carpool lane friendly, have huge storage options and are a perfect second car or main commuting alternative for cost conscious Americans. The insurance is less, maintenance, on and on. Yet, neither of these bills let Americans use the two wheels as transportation alternative. The Honda Ruckus with it's 49cc for zipping around, $2200, not eligible, The Honda Elite at $2400 the same, The 2009 Yamaha Majesty at 300cc and $6000 not fact, so many wonderful alternatives are...not eligible.

So basically the entire U.S. scooter market, which is seeing a boom, is...say it with me, not eligible. That is absurd even for government.

All is not lost, however, should the second bill make it through committee and ultimately become law. Companies like Aprilia are making actual commuter motorcycles and at this time are in a class all by themselves, according to Rick Panettieri, national product manager for Aprilia.

"The Aprilia Mana 850 is currently the only bike of its kind for sale in the U.S. market of which we are aware," he commented. "Our other original and unique product, the MP3 line of 250, 400 and 500s took the best of a motorcycle and put it in to a scooter, with the Mana we took the best of a scooter and put it on a full fledged, innovative motorcycle that a business man or woman would feel equally at ease around town running errands or going off to work."

He's not alone in that belief. I currently ride the Mana 850 as my commuting method because of the ease of use. It's a completely automatic bike, intuitive and innovative transmission that has three automatic modes (touring, rain and sport) as well as a completely manual setting. It's got a parking brake, a foot brake on the right, and enough storage where the gas tank used to be for a full helmet or four milkshakes in their holders and four burgers (trust me). It gets over 50 miles per gallon and is a full performance motorcycle that is twist and go. And no, I would have never considered myself a motorcyclist but this bike makes it easy. And at a little over $9000 it would fall in to the proposed legislation but is excluded from the current. The ability to just hop on and go coupled with its style and power make it a great crossover bike, so why aren't there more?

"First, the bike media was hesitant about it, was it a motorcycle was it a scooter," Panettieri added. "Second, there's not a lot to compare it to out there, so it's been hard to classify for many dealers, and third there's the mindset in America that motorcycles are for recreation and this is definitely a commuter bike for today's greener executive," he added.

Include movie stars in that list, since the Mana 850 that I drive used to be parked at Leonardo DiCaprio's house, a big two wheel as transportation advocate given the ability to save gas and pollute less.

The MP3s mentioned by Panettieri would be one of covered scooters, one of three made by any manufacturer (Suzuki has a 625cc for $7100 and Honda a 600cc for about the same), under the proposed bill. The MP3 250 Hybrid, at 140 miles per gallon, debuts first quarter 2010 at around $7500, and again is in a class of its own as Piaggio strives to become the Apple of transportation in America, changing the way we drive and devices we use to do it by inventing brand new technologies. Somebody should tell Congress.

Motorcycles' exclusion from the cash for clunkers legislation is just another hit cycling has taken in a few weeks. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently said in a speech to "sell your motorcycles and boats to help save money in the recession." That got immediate reaction from Tim Buche, President of the Motorcycle Industry Council.

"I would tell the Governor now is the time to dust them off and get them working," Buche stated. "They take far less gas, cost less to operate, and since 80% of commuters do so alone, are the one alternative we have right now that requires no more invention or research. I would also like to remind the governor that in his state over 1200 motorcycle dealers and suppliers make their livings generating some $335 million in payroll and that California has over 20% of the sales of all motorcycles, trained 60,000 riders last year, and had $3 billion in sales revenue, and those figures should triple to save money and the environment," he added.

So the Congress decides to spend a billion dollars to get people in to higher mileage alternatives (four billion total), and they exclude the only truly affordable, high mileage alternatives out there and even when they include them (if) still exclude the most useful class of motorcycle for commuting, the scooter, save a scant few innovative products being made to meet the growing need.

If that isn't bad enough, the bill also excludes most used cars in America, the ones from the 1990s or 1980s that may get more than 18mpg or be worth more than $3500 or $4500. Of course, it could take an IT specialist to figure out your vehicles combined mpg's, which is what one must know prior to any of this. The regulations and stipulations are so convoluted there are literally thousands of explanations in print, each conflicting in some way. So, the program is complex, can be easily abused (the vouchers theoretically could go for large gas guzzling vehicles like trucks as long as standards are met, standards that say trucks must go from 15 to 16 miles per gallon, only one mpg increase!) and doesn't give much needed and available options like motorcycles and excludes all but a few high mileage scooters. In other words, this is a ridiculous waste of one billion short term and four billion overall no matter what anyone is trying to sell.

In America in terms of cars we need immediately a $15k or less 100 mpg vehicle. Tata Motors knew what India needed and gave them the Tata at $2000. We own so much of the auto companies, but no one has introduced anything we truly need at a price point that a broke America can afford. We have a thriving motorcycle industry with affordable answers, but when even Congress continues to marginalize it, playing in to America's fear of two wheels and vision of bikes as nothing more than sport or fun, it makes it harder to see those viable alternatives are out there.

All in all, Cash for Clunkers is a lemon with no real substantial changes and too much red tape and without the added legislation including motorcycles it's a complete waste of taxpayer money. Congress has the same archaic ideas about transportation as the Big 3, which is why they're gone and why Congress appears to be running on empty when it comes to real transportation solutions for Americans. Maybe we should call Tata.

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