Can NYC Use Unpaid Tickets to Force Corporate Polluters to Electrify Fleets?
Companies that owe the city millions of dollars in unpaid idling violations may electrify their fleet to get out from under the debt in deals with the city.
12:03 AM EST on January 8, 2024
A handful of companies owe the city millions of dollars in unpaid idling violations — and the city appears to be using the hefty open balances to pressure the companies to shift to electric vehicles.
Two companies in particular, ConEdison and LabQ, owe several million dollars each in unpaid idling tickets issued by the Department of Environmental Protection through its citizen reporting program. LabQ has refused to pay a cent for more than $2 million worth of idling violations issued to its COVID-19 testing vans between October 2021 and April 2023, according to publicly available data — while ConEd has not paid over 3,717 tickets dating back to 2019 worth some $3.8 million.
DEP has issued the tens of thousands of idling fines since 2019 to LabQ and other companies in response to reports filed by citizens, a process that the city promoted in its “Billy Never Idles” campaign in 2020. Complainants whose reports lead to guilty convictions that the companies oblige to pay win a bounty worth 25 percent the violator’s original fine.
One top violator — Loomis — already reached a deal with the city to convert its fleet of armored cars to all-electric by 2025, City Hall announced last April. In exchange, Loomis received an unspecified “variance” on its fines — though city data show it still owes over $280,000.
LabQ, meanwhile, sued to dismiss all of its tickets, and indicated in a joint filing with the city in August that the two parties hoped to "possibly reach a resolution" out-of-court. In an interview with Streetsblog, a rep for Con Edison similarly referenced “discussions” between the city and the power utility.
“Con Edison is in on-going discussions with the city on this matter,” said ConEd spokesman Philip O’Brien. “We are proud of our environmental stewardship and are re-doubling our efforts to educate our workforce about the effects of vehicle idling. The long-term solution is transitioning to electric vehicles, which Con Edison is pursuing.”
In a follow-up statement, O'Brien said the company is "in the process of transitioning our light-duty fleet to all electric vehicles by 2035."
That education campaign may be backfiring, however, with more ConEd drivers covering their license plates when they run their engines to avoid idling penalties, civilian enforcers say.
Video shared with Streetsblog show examples of such behavior. One clip, from Dec. 28, shows a Con Edison truck running its engine with its wheels chocked and two men fast asleep inside.
"We still have work to do but we are proud of the progress we are making in this area," O'Brien, the company spokesman, said. "We have a robust anti-idling educational program in place for our workforce and our vehicles are engineered to minimize idling."
Other top idlers include Brinks, another armored vehicle company, FedEx, U-Haul and Amazon. Among the worst offenders, only Amazon has consistently paid its fines. Brinks owes $481,000, U-Haul owes $269,670. FedEx has 561 unpaid violations worth $111,069.
“The city takes seriously its obligation to combat excessive idling. We have either collected what’s owed by companies — such as Amazon — or are in the process of doing so,” Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department said in a statement. “We cannot comment further on pending cases.”
Citizen idling complaints ballooned from 9,070 in 2019 to 48,979 in 2022. About two-thirds of complaints result in tickets being issued, which companies can then dispute. DEP doled out near 53,000 idling violations in 2023, according to the most recent data. The program only applies to heavy duty trucks and buses.
LabQ was the top idling violator through the first four years of the program, when DEP said it received 79,885 idling complaints through the citizen reports.
The company insists it needs its vans running their engines to keep testing samples at proper temperature — despite evidence to the contrary submitted in court by a group of civilian complainants.
“We fought every single one that was within specific categories for different types of summonses that were issued, and they were all dismissed. We have permits, licenses, we are a legitimate laboratory,” LabQ Chief Operating Officer Daniel Adar told Streetsblog last month.
“Because there's so many we're currently in court trying to fight the rest at once. The court has the documentation on all of this, and our lawyers are in touch with them to fight all of them.”
Contrary to Adar and LabQ’s claim, however, city judges have found LabQ guilty of illegal idling in five instances, while dismissing 19 cases, according to public data. Another 3,403 remain in limbo due to the pending litigation.
“In order to keep our vehicles in compliance, we had to keep them running,” Adar claimed. “There are certain requirements related to sample processing, before the collection is done, and during and after."
But evidence submitted by five citizen complainants seeking to intervene in the suit contradicts the company’s position: LabQ keeps its testing samples in refrigerated cooler inside its vans, uses batteries to power its computers, and staged several testing tents without any vehicle or gas-engine present.
“As long as they don't have to pay the fines, the bottom line is [running the engine] is cheaper and makes the people working happier instead of, like, having to wear coats or stand in tents,” said the citizen enforcers’ attorney, Remy Green.
The electric slide
It's clear the city sees electrification of all trucks as the future— and reams of overdue tickets as a cudgel to negotiate faster fleet conversions.
The city’s press release announcing its deal with Loomis specifically cited the civilian complaint program’s role in pushing Loomis to electrify. DEP promised to keep tabs on Loomis’s electrification, and to revoke the variance if the company did not comply.
“I want to thank New Yorkers for their vigilance in protecting the environment and providing us with the video evidence needed to levy penalties against these top ten offenders,” DEP Commissioner Rohit Aggarwala said at the time.
Citizen enforcement accounts for the vast majority of idling tickets, which the NYPD has more or less stopped issuing. The complainants deserve a seat at the table and compensations for pressuring companies to follow the law, their attorney said.
"Moving people to electric vehicles is a great thing,” Green said. “Part of that deal should be to pay the people who put pressure on the companies to agree to that."
Other companies seem disinclined to stop idling. Amazon may pay its fines, but continues to commit violations, according to recent violation data.
One civilian complainant, who is not a party to the suit and spoke to Streetsblog on the condition anonymity, said trucks often spent all night idling in his neighborhood before he started reporting them for the behavior.
“Literally, I could just walk out of my apartment and nail five trucks,” the person said. “I have cleared the neighborhood.”
Ben Marsh, a data scientist, contributed to this report.
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