- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Transportation Department extended the deadline Monday for auto dealers to submit their “cash-for-clunkers” deals, giving them more time to make sure they get repaid under the popular $3 billion government rebate program.

Dealers now have until noon Tuesday to submit the necessary paperwork, after the deadline was pushed back from 8 p.m. Monday. All sales under the program were still scheduled to end Monday evening.

The change came after government computers set up to handle the filings buckled under a flood of dealers trying to send in their sales agreements at the last minute. Under the original plan, those deals that weren’t submitted on time wouldn’t be repaid, leaving many dealers fearful that they would be left on the hook for clunker sales they made.

“The computer system has been down or very slow for most of this day, and we literally have thousands of dealers with probably millions of deals that they would like to submit and just have been unable to,” said Michael Harrington, chief legislative counsel for the National Automobile Dealers Association.

Computer problems have plagued the program, as it proved far more popular than government officials expected. A rush of filings also bombarded the online system earlier this month when it appeared the first $1 billion Congress set aside would run out just days after sales began. Transportation officials later expanded its computer network capacity and tripled the number of staffers working on the program.

The big rush of filings Monday, however, shut down the filing system temporarily, prompting auto dealers to push for an extension.

“We’ve spent the better part of the last three days trying to hack our way into their computer program that has been down more than it’s been up,” said Alan Starling, who owns two General Motors Co. dealerships in central Florida. His staff was still trying to submit all the paperwork for 75 deals through the “clunkers” program.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, speaking to reporters in Norristown, Pa., earlier in the day, said the program was an unprecedented success and a boon for car dealers, automakers, scrap yards and financial institutions. He estimated that by the sales deadline later Monday, “there will be 700,000 to 800,000 cars that have been sold, most of them fuel-efficient,” replacing gas-guzzling cars and trucks.

Transportation officials said that, through early Monday, dealers had submitted 625,000 vouchers totaling $2.58 billion. Many car dealerships have worked overnight in recent days to submit the 13-page application to be reimbursed for the trade-in vehicle, including the title, proof of registration and proof of insurance.

“Cash for clunkers” has been wildly successful in spurring new-car sales and getting gas-guzzling models off the road, though some energy experts have said the pollution reduction is too small to be cost-effective. Customers receive rebates of between $3,500 and $4,500, depending on the improvement in fuel efficiency from their old vehicle to their new one.

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