License plate factory at SCI-Fayette offers a mirror into the Pennsylvania economy
March 13, 2012 8:00 AM
John C. Whitehead/The Patriot News
An inmate at State Correctional Institute Fayette cleans license plates and feeds them into a painter.
John C. Whitehead/The Patriot News
An inmate at SCI Fayette checks license plates to make sure they were made correctly.
By Nick Malawskey The Patriot-News
HARRISBURG -- At the end of 2011, state Rep. John Payne, R-Derry Twp., pushed a bill forward that would allow people to purchase specialty license plates bearing the phrase "In God We Trust."
In and of itself, it was not remarkable -- it made a few headlines and the bill itself is moving through the state Senate after being passed by the House.
But if one were to follow the bill's potential progeny it would lead to Fayette County. Tucked amid the hills and valleys of the Allegheny Mountain range and embraced by a broad sweep of the muddy Monongahela River sits State Correctional Institute Fayette, a 2,000 bed maximum security prison.
Inside the razor-wire topped walls of the prison, away from the cell blocks and recreation zones, is a large metal machine shop, the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania.
It is here, under the watchful eyes of the prison's staff, that inmates work for six hours each day -- in a process relatively unchanged for decades -- to produce one of the most ubiquitous items of our lives: license plates.
Amid the clamor and heat of the metal shop, an 80-year-old 10,000-pound Pittsburgh Steel press slams downward onto a series of steel plates, called "dies."
In a rumble of hydraulics the massive press retracts upward and in a smooth, practiced motion, one of its inmate operators shuffles the individual dies into a new order.
On another side of the machine, the upward motion spits out a half-finished product -- a 12- by 6-inch aluminum sheet, bearing the familiar blue and yellow stripes of the standard Pennsylvania license plate.
At any given time, there are more than 11 million vehicles registered in Pennsylvania, a number that includes cars, truck and motorcycles. All of them bear registered license plates, plates that since 2003 were pressed in Fayette County, in a crucible of sweat, heat and pressure.
As an aside, the state Department of Corrections has produced license plates for almost as long as we have been driving. Production was merely transferred to SCI-Fayette in 2003 from Western State Penitentiary.
Each year the Fayette factory stamps out more than 1.3 million license plates, which it sells to PennDOT for $1.80 each.
The inmates working each of the four main presses -- which emboss a plate's letters and numbers -- will repeat the process 3,000 times per day.
License plates are such an integral part of Pennsylvania that a tour of the shop reveals interesting insights into the fabric of the society that created it.
Want to know about the economy? Look at production numbers.
Following the start of the recession in December 2008, new car sales took a huge hit as consumers pulled back from large purchases amid economic uncertainty.
Orders at the shop -- placed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation on a quarterly basis -- plummeted accordingly from more than 2 million annually to around 1.3 million. They have since started to tick back upward to 1.5 million per year.
Perhaps just as curious are the contents of a large wooden crate kept in one corner of the football-field sized shop.
Inside are thousands of plates, bundled in batches of 100. Each batch bears the familiar blue and yellow stripes, but it is there that similarities end.
The stacks represent a class of license plates that is among the most quirky in the nation -- Pennsylvania nonprofit organizational license plates.
They account for only about 1 percent of the total plates on the road, but come in more than 280 varieties -- making Pennsylvania number three in the nation for largest variety of license plates.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it appears Maryland is the king of that mountain, with more than 800 different plates available. New Jersey is number two, with slightly more than 300. California, by contrast only boasts 100.
In Pennsylvania the program is dominated by colleges, universities and volunteer fire companies. But it runs a gamut from Penn State Alumni (by far the most popular) to the Potter County Visitors Bureau, (which has the distinct pleasure of being the only county with its own license plate).
The nonprofit's executive director, David Brooks, is proud of his organization's plate, which have sold roughly 330 units since it was created. PennDOT, he said, was skeptical at first and Mr. Brooks freely admits it was "one of the quirkier things we try to do."
Originally the group wanted to have its slogan, "God's Country," featured on the plate, but PennDOT nixed the idea. According to the rules the plates can only bear the organization's logo and name -- no slogans.
Still, Mr. Brooks is happy. "We have people who come here year in and year out for decades, wanted to give them something so they could show their love of the area," he said.
Plus, he loves to show it off at tourism industry conventions.
"All the other tourism people see my plate and are jealous because they didn't think of it first," he laughed.
The rules for the program are pretty simple.
To receive an organizational plate, there has to be a non-profit group behind the design, willing to spend a couple hundred bucks for design work and PennDOT fees.
And that's pretty much it.
There is a vague stipulation regarding a minimum number of orders -- PennDOT recommends 300 to recoup design fees -- but it doesn't really seem to be enforced. Some plates only sell a hundred or so in their entire run, others much less.
In true Pennsylvania fashion, quirkiness, pride and independence rule the roost.
After all, where else could you buy a license plate expounding upon your support for the Reading Buccaneers, the PA Council On Independent Living, or the Telephone Pioneers of America, a nonprofit of current and retired telecommunications employees?
While some are targeted to broad groups -- the Penn State Alumni plate has sold more than 14,000 -- others are pretty darn specific.
If you live in the Delaware Valley and own a Triumph (an English sports car), there's a plate for that. Or if your car tastes are more German, there's a Mercedes-Benz Club of America license plate available.
The club, however, won't revoke your membership for putting it on a non German-vehicle, although it's not necessarily encouraged either.
"I know of one plate on a Smart car, but I don't know about anyone putting one on another non-MB brand," said club President Larry Taylor in an e-mail.