By HOWARD WEISS-TISMAN
BRATTLEBORO -- Car dealers around Windham County are sending one message to Vermont’s congressional delegation before they head home for the summer: Save the Cash for Clunkers program.
Dealerships throughout the region report a spike in business since the beginning of President Barack Obama’s program, which offers car owners up to $4,500 for turning in their older cars for newer, more energy-efficient models.
The government put $1 billion into the program, which was supposed to last until November, but the wildly successful response quickly used up the money.
Now the U.S. Senate will have to act before this weekend to keep the incentive alive.
"They should take some of that $800 billion or so they gave the banks and give some back to the American public," Stacy Subaru general manager John Sciacca said about the debate in Congress this week to extend the program. "It did exactly what they wanted it to do. It’s been a great program."
Sciacca said the company closed on 12 deals last month using the Cash for Clunkers program, and he said in just about every case, the buyer was encouraged to get the trade-in money on the cars which he said were probably not worth much more than what the government was offering.
"These buyers were driven into the market by this deal," Sciacca said. "They say the funds were gone in five days, and if that’s the truth, it stimulated the economy just like they hoped."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told the Associated Press that the program had recorded 157,000 transactions worth $664 million as of Tuesday.
Eighty-three percent of the vehicles traded in were trucks or SUVs, while 60 percent of the vehicles purchased were passenger cars, for an average increase in fuel efficiency of 61 percent, Gibbs said.
Earlier this week, the Obama administration said the program would run out of money soon if Congress does not act before the summer recess, and the president is pressing Senate Democrats to put another $2 billion behind the plan before the end of the week.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said Tuesday that he would support the program and work to get the bill passed.
"This is an example of a very successful stimulus program that is working," Sanders said. "By helping consumers and car dealers and car makers, this is a program that is creating jobs and protecting the environment. The Senate should keep this incentive program going."
But a Sanders spokesman said the Senate has a very busy week ahead, with Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation looming as well as an important agriculture bill that will offer Vermont’s struggling dairy farmers some relief.
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., took part in the debate on the original $1 billion that was earmarked for Cash for Clunkers program.
Leahy spokesman David Carle said the senator was still looking closely at the results so far before committing to supporting it again.
"There was considerable debate in the Appropriations Committee earlier this year when it was chartered and funded as a one-time program, and he ended up supporting it," Carle said. "The Senate’s approach on extending it has not yet come together and he will want to see more details before deciding."
The House last week approved $2 billion for the program, leaving the Senate to complete the bill before the summer recess.
"During these difficult economic times, Cash for Clunkers has proven successful at providing consumers an incentive to replace inefficient cars with higher mileage models," Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. "At the same time, it has helped Vermont car dealerships stay in business and bolstered the nation’s struggling auto industry. By providing more funding for this innovative program, we can help our environment while giving our economy a boost."
Steve Durand, owner of Durand Toyota-Ford in Westminster, said business is up 20 percent since the Cash for Clunkers program started.
And while Durand is thankful for the business, he said that the government could offer some support to the dealers.
Dealers around the country have been complaining about the online reporting system, and Durand said the government Web site is slow and cumbersome.
Durand also has yet to see any of the government money for the deals he made, so while the cars have been flying off his lot, his cash flow has taken a hit.
Durand thinks the government should let the program die, saying it did what it was supposed to do and it was time to move on.
Ford of Brattleboro co-owner Mark Rountree said he would be happy to see Congress support the program.
The Ford Focus is the leading replacement vehicle and the company saw its sales rise 2.4 percent in July, the first increase over the previous year since November 2007.
"Some of these people were not even thinking about getting a new car until this program came into place," Rountree said. "It is getting a lot of older cars that should be off the road, off the road."