Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Commonwealth's Six-Year Transportation Plan Meets Today

My helpful Commonwealth Delegate Tom Rust, who is currently running unopposed, conveyed a bit of information which I certainly found interesting and I hope you will too.

N. Virginia Transportation Meeting Is Oct. 25

Board seeks input on highways, rail and transit projects

The Secretary of Transportation and the Commonwealth Transportation Board will conduct nine public meetings across the state in October and November.  These meetings are being held to give stakeholders the opportunity to review and provide comments on projects and programs to be included in the Fiscal Year 2013-2018 Six-Year Improvement Program.  This includes highway, rail, and public transportation initiatives.  Following the open house from 6:00-6:30 pm, there will be and opportunity for the public and transportation stakeholders to comment.  Written comments may also be submitted during this informal session, or they may be mailed or e-mailed until December 12, 2011.  The Northern Virginia meeting will take place on Tuesday, October 25 beginning at 6:00 pm at the VDOT office, 4975 Alliance Drive in Fairfax.

I plan on attending this meeting to speak about an issue very important to me at the Commonwealth level: Electric Vehicle access to High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes with single occupancy.

Electric Vehicles Too New for HOV

The Clean Fuel Club

In Virginia, we've had 3 different phases of the HOV easement for clean fuel vehicles.  It all started with House Bill 1881 and Senate Bill 771 of the 1993 session of the General Assembly, which established the Clean Fuel license plate and is the origin of the Virginia Code § 46.2-749.3. Special license plates for clean special fuel vehicles. (Unfortunately, the on-line legislative records don't go back as far as 1993 so I can't provide an exact link to the text of these bills.) Then in the 1994 session, Senate Bill 71 added an easement to allow Clean Fuel vehicles to use the HOV lanes as single occupancy as per Virginia Code § 33.1-46.2. Designation of high-occupancy vehicle lanes; use of such lanes; penalties. However, this bill only extended the easement up until 1 July 1997; the law was later amended by 1996 Senate Bill 274 and 1996 House Bill 585 to extend the easement to 1999 and by 1999 Senate Bill 1068 to 2004 and finally by 2003 House Bill 2316 to 1 July 2006.

It was a brisk, autumn morning while on my way to work my 1995 Nissan Altima was totaled by a minivan at the American Legion Bridge.  It was 2000 and the hot, new technology was the 2001 Toyota Prius and the 2001 Honda Insight: the first generation of hybrid cars.  I needed a new car, and I wanted one badly!  But the Prius was back-ordered for months and I needed to get to work; I couldn't wait.  So I resigned myself to the most fuel-efficient car I could get in the full-sized class.  I'm still driving that 2001 Toyota Avalon today.

Around this time the Federal Government started to get involved in national guidelines for HOV designation and usage.  On 10 August 2005, Public Law 109-59 was passed, adding Section 166: HOV Facilities to 23 United States Code, Chapter 1.  This set at the Federal level the allowances already specified by the Commonwealth, which was charged with defining rules for its Clean Fuel easement by 30 September 2009.  Yet while the U.S. Congress was providing an HOV easement for all, Virginia was beginning to clamp down.

Second-Class Clean

On 19 April 2006, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 1248 and Senate Bill 454, which amended Virginia Code § 33.1-46.2 to define a second type of Clean Fuel plate.  This new plate would begin issue on 1 July 2006 and entitle any vehicle which bore it an easement to travel on any HOV lane in the Commonwealth of Virginia except along the I95/I395 corridor.  Where as any car registered before 1 July 2006 would continue to be given carte blanche access to all of Virginia's HOV lanes with single occupancy.  With this new provision, the easement was extended another year where by both types of clean fuel plate would be allowed to use the HOV lanes outside of I95/I395 and the older plate allowed to continue using those lanes too.

I was quite angry when this was announced.  After all, I had wanted to get a hybrid, but they weren't available.  I certainly wasn't going to trash a five-year-old car for a new one at that point.  As an environmentally conscious individual, such waste would have been anathema to my nature.  So instead I planned.  I knew that my car should last another 5 years, and I knew the days of better technology were coming.  This was the seeds of the website you see here: if I couldn't have a car with clean enough fuel for all HOV, I'd get an even cleaner fueled vehicle for my next automobile!  I'd get an electric car.

This system of two-tiered Clean Fuel categories was extended to 1 July 2008 by 2007 House Bill 2132, to 1 July 2009 by 2008 House Bill 1014, to 1 July 2010 by 2009 House Bill 2476 and finally to 1 July 2011 by 2010 House Bill 214 on 11 March 2010 and by Senate Bill 552 on 10 April.  On 20 April 2010, I placed a $99 reservation on a Nissan LEAF.  Finally I was going to get my Electric Car!  We were told that the Southeastern United States would be allowed to order the car in December 2010, and assuming 6 months of production, we'd have our cars by June, 2011.  I might not be able to drive HOV single occupancy on I95/I395, but at least there would be I66 and VA 267, the Dulles Toll Road and Greenway.

Insult to Injury

On 10 December 2010, my dreams of driving electric were dealt a serious blow.  The night before the delivery of the first production Nissan LEAF, they informed all reservation holders in the Tier 2 market, which at that time consisted of the 7 states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia, wouldn't be able to order their car until Late Summer 2011.  Late Summer 2011 ordering meant late autumn delivery at best; well after the end of the HOV easement 1 July 2011.

Why would I worry about that when the General Assembly had been steadily renewing the easement each year?  It comes down the second part of 2010 Senate Bill 552.  Just like 2006 House Bill 1248 and 2006 Senate Bill 454, the 2010 bill defined a third class of Clean Fuel plates with a further restriction: no more access to I66 HOV as single occupancy after 1 July 2011.  By delaying the car release in Virginia by 8 months, Nissan was injuring its customers not only by the delay itself but by the fact that no LEAF bought in Virginia would qualify to drive on the HOV lanes of either I95/I395 or I66 with single occupancy.  The 2011 Chevrolet Volt, with it's late 2010 release, would qualify, as well as any Smart ED leased here in addition to the Commonwealth's 2 or so Tesla Roadsters.  None of those cars were released before 2006 and thus none qualify for the original Clean Fuel badge, but at least the handful that got in before the deadline get to use I66 single occupancy — but not the LEAF, not the Ford Focus Electric, not the Tesla Model S.  Clean cars can drive, but Cleaner cars are left sitting in traffic.

On 28 March 2011, Virginia House Bill 1432 extended the HOV easement until 1 July 2012.  Yippie!  I can use HOV single occupancy if and only if I pay a toll.  And the badge in the middle: how can I spell anything with that?  It's ugly!

California

California knows how to treat environmentalists right.  Effective 1 July 2011, while the Commonwealth of Virginia was taking away HOV rights from the first generation of Electric Vehicles, California started restricting its HOV single occupancy to only cars with a White sticker, meaning Super Ultra-Low Emission Vehicles (SULEV), Inherently Low Emission Vehicles (ILEV) and certain Ultra-Low Emission Vehicles (ULEV).  The LEAF qualifies for this, but hybrid gasoline vehicles don't.  Not even the Chevy Volt qualifies in California.  Effectively, you need to be nearly Zero-Emission to get the White Sticker.  The White Sticker easement extends until 1 July 2015.

Yellow stickers for Hybrids and Advanced Technology Partial Zero-Emission Vehicles (AT PZEV).  They were limited the first 85,000 applicants and expired as of 1 July 2011.  California is also considering a new Green Sticker to begin distribution on 1 January 2012 and restricted to the first 40,000 applicants.  It's unclear whether the LEAF would qualify for a green sticker, but according to the list of qualified vehicles, the 2010 Plug-In Prius does.

More information can be found in the California Clean Vehicle Incentives FAQ.

Maryland

In Maryland, Virginia's neighbor to the North, they also have an HOV easement, but they restrict it to plug-in vehicles only.  This means the Chevy Volt and the Nissan LEAF qualify.  I like the Volt so I like this system.  I prefer Zero-Emission as the standard, like California, but the advantage of following Maryland's lead is that we could co-operate on the issuing of stickers and recognize them in both states.  Thus Marylander could use Virginian HOV lanes and Virginians could use Marylander HOV.  I also like the sticker approach because it ties the qualification to the vehicle and doesn't allow it to convey the benefit in perpetuity like you can with the original Clean Fuel plate in Virginia.  I don't mind people who were early adopters having an advantage for HOV usage, but it's time for a new generation of early adapters.  It's time for the Electric Vehicle.

My Speech

Now you know the background, here is what I'm planning to say tonight.

In 2000, when I bought my last car, it was next to impossible to get a hybrid.  Hybrid vehicles were, after all, limited to a handful of custom imports and hobbyist vehicles.  There were barely any of these new, clean cars on the roads of the Commonwealth back then.  Hybrids were, after all, expensive, untested domestically and weren't even available in major dealer showrooms yet.

At that time Virginia Code § 33.1-46.2 Section A Paragraph 6, allowing single occupancy HOV usage to cars baring Clean Fuel plates, made a lot of sense.  There weren't very many hybrids on the road so letting them use the HOV lanes wouldn't affect traffic congestion greatly.

However, as of mid 2011, we now have over two million hybrid vehicles on the road, and many of those are right here in Northern Virginia and around Washington, which boasted the fifth largest growth nationally in the hybrid market.  The Commonwealth has adapted to this, limiting single occupancy access to certain HOV areas, but this favors the oldest hybrids and doesn't encourage our citizens to help our business by buying new cars.

Today, hybrid vehicles are ubiquitous.  Plug-in and Battery Electric cars, however, are still rare.  These newer, cleaner vehicles are today where hybrid vehicles were back in 2000 and 2001: expensive, untested domestically and not even available in major dealer showrooms yet.  Just as the Commonwealth helped the nascent hybrid vehicle market to grow though the HOV easement, so too, I argue, that the next generation of even cleaner fueled vehicles should have that privileged.

It's time we cleaned up our clean fuel cars.  It's time to put zero-emission vehicles on I66 and I95/I395.  It's time for those busy and congested roads to produce no pollution for the housing that runs along these highways, where families live and children play.  Don't we want to stop our voracious appetite for hydrocarbons coming from nations which dislike us?  Isn't that the kind of kind of Virginia we should be striving for?

That part of the speech should run about 2½ – 3 minutes, which would be my allotted time; I'll therefore submit the rest of the speech as follows in written comments.

The way I see it, we have 6 options:

  1. Keep things as they are, with new, zero-emission vehicles restricted to VA 267 and no access to I95/I395, nor to I66.
  2. End the Clean Fuel HOV easement all together, which although fair would, I suspect, make no-one happy.
  3. Evolve the requirements for the HOV easement over time, expiring dirtier cars and creating openings for cleaner ones.  We might not be able to tie this to specific CAFE standards according to the EPA, but at least we could work towards emission targets.
  4. Simply put a time limit on the HOV easement, so that the oldest cars only qualify for say 10 years and as those cars expire, new slots open up for the new generation of cleaner vehicles.
  5. Follow California by completely ending the easement for hybrid vehicles and only allowing Ultra-Low Emission, Inherently Low Emission or Super Ultra-Low Emission on our HOV lanes.  I don't expect the Commonwealth to be this draconian but I see it as still preferable over the Status Quo.  And finally…
  6. Allow only Plug-In Vehicles, vehicles that can be plugged into the wall, to take advantage of the HOV easement.  As a resident of Northern Virginia I find this the best solution for the Commonwealth because it's the exact same rule which governs our neighbor Maryland.  In fact, what would benefit the residents of Northern Virginia most would be if Richmond and Annapolis could set up a joint commission and co-operate on the issuing of this Plug-In easement such that each state would recognize the other's right to use HOV single occupancy within both states.

And finally, if we're to enact any but the first two options, I would recommend that we end the use of the Clean Fuel plate in favor of a non-transferable sticker, like California and Maryland.  The ties the easement to the qualifying car and allows the Commonwealth to restrict usage to specific vehicles rather than to an owner, since it's the car we need to be clean.

I know I'm not making any friends with this viewpoint but in the long run, I see any of options three through six as in the best interest of the Commonwealth.  Let's keep Virginia green and I thank you for your time!

I know this speech will rub a lot of people the wrong way, but it's from the heart and I feel it must be said.  Will you join me tonight?