Editorial: Spending the Volkswagen millions

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Volkswagen cheated. The automaker installed software that allowed many of its diesel-powered vehicles to put out up to 40 times more than the allowable level of the air pollutant nitrogen oxide and still pass emissions tests. It got caught, and in a settlement with the federal government, agreed to pay $14.7 billion to offset the damage done. New Hampshire’s share of the settlement is $31 million, and the state is seeking public input on how best to spend the money.

We have some suggestions, but first the parameters.

The bulk of the money must be spent to eliminate nitrogen oxide emissions by, for example, replacing smoky old school buses with electric models. Up to 15 percent of it can be spent on charging stations to speed the replacement of internal combustion vehicles with electric ones. Up to 15 percent can be spent to administer the program.

First, $31 million is not a lot of money. Last year, the state inspected 2,653 school buses. At current prices, the settlement would replace about 138 with new electric models. Air quality would improve, particularly in front of schools, but the overall impact would be small. Getting the best bang for the buck – in reduced pollution, increased use of electric vehicles by residents and tourists alike and a boost to the state’s economy – will take a lot of thought.

Many states have already said that they will spend the full 15 percent on charging stations, and New Hampshire should do likewise. Range anxiety, the fear that an all-electric car will run out of juice on the road, is holding back sales of vehicles that contribute relatively little to global warming and negative health effects. Making it possible for a Tesla owner in Boston to drive to the Cannon Mountain state ski area and charge it for the return trip while on the slopes would be a win for the environment and the state.

Locating charging stations, other than in obvious places like the interstate liquor store plazas, will take some study. Every downtown will want at least one. They should be installed only where they will get year-round use. And then there’s the question of what kind of charging stations. Car makers have yet to standardize the plugs used to charge vehicles. Expensive, super-fast stations can be used by only some vehicles – Teslas can charge at any station but only Teslas can be charged at the company’s super stations.

The Department of Environmental Services’s proposed plan poses several questions for those wishing to weigh in. Should the plan call for maximizing the benefits of the settlement by requiring matching funds from subsidy recipients? We say yes, but at very different levels for public projects that could affect local property tax rates and private projects, like subsidizing company-owned fleets of trucks and buses.

The department also wants to know whether a project should be designed specifically to benefit low-income areas. Again our answer is yes. Low-income residents are the least likely to be able to afford hybrid or electric vehicles and most likely to live in places where pollution from freeways, rail yards, truck stops, factories and other sources is the worst. Replacing diesel buses used in mass transit would be a help.

Finally, electric vehicle technology is advancing rapidly. Prices are coming down. Recognizing that, the state of Colorado plans to squirrel away a chunk of its settlement in a fund to be tapped down the road, so to speak, after it sees which of the programs are the most successful. That strikes us as a smart choice for New Hampshire as well.