Every car owner knows the stress of seeing the check engine light glow red on the dashboard. Suddenly, any normal day is taken over by concerns of finding a repair shop and the potential costs of an unknown repair. For low-income Minnesotans, the high price of many vehicle repairs makes a trip to the local car garage especially worrying.
At Environmental Initiative, we’ve collaborated with partner car repair shops to fund the repairs of emissions systems in cars of low-income Minnesotans through an effort called Project CAR. The Lift Garage is a non-profit located in South Minneapolis that serves low-income drivers with low-cost car repairs. The Lift is a founding partner in Project CAR and has completed over 100 repairs since the program began in 2019. We caught up with JoHanna Smrcina, Operations Director at The Lift Garage, to learn more about how Project CAR is going.
How does Project CAR work at The Lift?
When a car comes into our shop, we conduct a free safety inspection. Often, there are a few repairs that a car needs. If any of those repairs are part of the emissions system, we tell the customer that we can cover the costs of those repairs through Project CAR. That is often a tremendous relief to a customer because they can prioritize paying for other repairs necessary for the safety and drivability of their car.
What has the impact of Project CAR been for The Lift and its customers?
Take yourself back to a time when your car started making a weird, noisy sound, your breaks start grinding, or the check engine light comes on. It’s stressful, especially when it’s an unforeseen or unplanned expense, which car repairs usually are. When a Project CAR-eligible repair is identified during the diagnosis and The Lift staff can tell a customer that their repair will be free, the relief for the customer is palpable.
Project CAR also fits well with The Lift’s values. The Lift knows that the transportation sector is a primary contributor to air pollution in Minnesota. However, before Project CAR, many customers of The Lift had difficulty prioritizing emissions repairs when they faced more immediate repair needs that would affect the safety of their cars. The Lift can now ensure that cars leaving its garage are not emitting excessive pollutants because repairs are too costly. We love that we can help reduce the overall pollution in the air of the communities where our customers (and staff and supporters!) live.
We have heard about an increase in catalytic converter thefts in Minnesota. Have you noticed an increase in catalytic converter repairs?
Yes, absolutely. It has become a big problem. In the last year, about half of our catalytic converter repairs are replacing a stolen catalytic converter. Each of those customers has benefitted tremendously from Project CAR covering the costs of those repairs. The program has been set up in a way that makes it easy for us to say yes. Customers who have had a catalytic converter stolen know right away that we can help them. We can provide a quick and free repair for stolen catalytic converters because of Project CAR.
Are there any customers who received repairs through Project CAR that you could tell us about?
Yes, there is one customer whose catalytic converter was stolen and we repaired it free of charge because of Project CAR. Not even a month later, the customer called again distraught. Her new catalytic converter had been stolen. We were so grateful that Project CAR was willing to cover the costs to pay for the repair a second time. She brought her car back in and we got the repair done. We also worked with the customer to help direct her to resources so she could install a catalytic converter guard so that her car would be a harder target for future catalytic converter thefts. She was incredibly grateful that these repairs were covered and that somebody cared enough to help her out twice!
Since 2019, more than 200 cars have been repaired through Project CAR, half of which our partnership with The Lift Garage has made possible. Congratulations to JoHanna and her team, and to all the supporters of The Lift Garage who make their work possible!
Project CAR would not be possible without the generous support of our funders including the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, City of Minneapolis, and Flint Hills Resources. Other participating partner garages include Cars for Neighbors, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Small Vehicle Garage, the Newgate School and Nghia’s Auto Service.
How business, government agencies work together to update pollution-spewing older cars
Environmental Initiative, along with some partnering organizations, is expanding its work to make Minnesota’s vehicles cleaner, safer and more energy efficient.
This latest work comes 15 years after the same partners retrofitted the first of 4,500 diesel school buses, trucks and off-road equipment as part of what Environmental Initiative called Project Green Fleet.
Environmental Initiative, or EI, is financed by Flint Hills Resources with support from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the city of Minneapolis. The group has now launched Project CAR (Clean Air Repairs) with designs on fixing older passenger cars, trucks and vans that cause 90% of vehicle emissions.
Last week, technicians worked on several vehicles of working-poor customers of the Lift Garage on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis that need tires, batteries, fluid changes and the like. The owners were cleared based on financial need to get additional pollution-control work through Project CAR.
“Our customers will pay $500 on average for tires, brakes, batteries or other critical repairs so they can get to work,” said JoHanna Smrcina, operations director at the Lift. “Now we can say, you also need a catalytic converter or oxygen sensor and Project CAR will pay.”
Only about 70 cars have gotten the Project CAR pollution-remediation treatment so far this year in a slow ramp-up. If past is precedent, this matters.
Project Green Fleet, which similarly started small, has retrofitted 3,200 school buses with emissions-depleting equipment, said Gillian Greenberg, a project coordinator at EI. That has allowed 300,000 school kids to breathe cleaner air and reduced asthma and other illnesses.
What’s more, 1,400 heavy-duty diesel engines in trucks, buses and off-road equipment were retrofitted. That equals removing 750,000 cars from state roads.
“Project CAR [will] help our environment, energize our economy and improve health for vulnerable citizens,” said Bill Droessler, director of clean air programs at Environmental Initiative. “We find practical things … that make sense economically and environmentally. We’re also trying for … greater outcomes in overburdened communities [of] lower-income people of color who cope with more pollution.”
The Minnesota Department of Health and MPCA say studies prove poor air quality disproportionately affects people living in poverty. Project CAR funds repairs to four priority emission-control systems: catalytic converters, evaporative emission control (EVAP) systems, oxygen sensors and exhaust gas recirculation valves. Repairs initially are provided through the Lift and Newgate School in Minneapolis; Cars for Neighbors in Blaine, and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Small Vehicle Garage in Cass Lake.
“Cost is the No. 1 barrier for low-income Minnesotans considering car repairs,” Smrcina said. “Project CAR allows them to improve the safety and efficiency of their vehicles at little or no cost.”
The Lift is a particularly interesting partner in this venture. The seven-year-old nonprofit garage was founded by a social worker, Cathy Heying, who is a Dunwoody College-trained auto mechanic. Located at Hiawatha Avenue and E. Lake Street, the Lift employs several mechanics and works with people who pay about one-third of full price. About two-thirds of its $1.3 million annual budget comes from philanthropy.
Heying knows the loss of a reliable vehicle often means a loss of job and access to day care, followed by apartment eviction and poverty for a single parent. Seeing those folks, who generally make less than $15 an hour or who are out of work, contribute something to repair a car and leave in a safer vehicle is empowering for the customers as well as the mechanics. The customers pay $15 an hour for the subsidized labor, compared to $100 or so an hour at big, commercial garages. Parts are sold at cost at the Lift.
Geoff Glasrud, manufacturing manager at the Flint Hills refinery, said Project CAR continues the company’s support of “creative ways to keep our air and water clean and safe for everyone.”
The Flint Hills oil refinery in Rosemount has cleaned up its own operation over the past decade after significant pollution violations in the past. Last year, Flint Hills completed a $400 million, multiyear project that cut electricity consumption and pollution emissions while increasing output of gasoline and jet fuel.
The Flint Hills refinery, known as Pine Bend and owned by Koch Industries, is the 11th-largest refinery in the United States. It supplies more than 50% of the motor fuel sold in Minnesota and around 40% sold in Wisconsin.
Project CAR also is sponsored by Clean Air Minnesota, which is sponsored by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and managed by EI.