BOSTON — When it comes to clean transportation, most U.S. states are underutilizing funds from Volkswagen’s nearly $3 billion settlement with federal authorities, according to a new report from RIPIRG Education Fund and Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center.
After Volkswagen was caught three years ago violating emissions standards in 590,000 cars marketed as “low emissions,” the German automaker agreed to create an “Environmental Mitigation Trust” to be distributed across all 50 states (along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico).
The Volkswagen Settlement State Scorecard gave only 15 states a C or better for money-spending policies that increase access to electric vehicle charging and bolster electric school and transit bus fleets. Fourteen states, along with Puerto Rico, received failing scores.
“Volkswagen breached customers’ trust and put all of our health at risk,” said Sam Landenwitsch, senior vice president for The Public Interest Network, of which Arizona PIRG and Environment Arizona are members. “But the Volkswagen settlement provides states with the perfect opportunity to kick-start the transition to a cleaner and healthier electric transportation system. A lot of good is coming out of how states are spending this money — but many states are not going nearly far enough.”
The study comes as drivers prepare for Memorial Day, which kicks off the summertime travel season. Last year, some 40 million-plus Americans took extended car trips during this weekend. The vast majority of those miles were driven in gas-powered cars that not only contributed to poor air quality, asthma and other respiratory diseases but also exacerbated global warming.
The settlement does not preclude states from spending the money on new diesel or compressed natural gas technology. However, considering the environmental and health harms caused by fossil fuels, this report focused on whether states are using this money to electrify transportation. Adopting large numbers of electric vehicles — both for personal use and public transit and school bus fleets — offers many benefits, including cleaner air and the opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a previous U.S. PIRG study.
“Climate change is a health emergency for our families and our communities,” said Morgan Folger, director of Environment America Research & Policy Center Clean Cars Campaign. “States have the unique opportunity to fund projects that will cut carbon pollution by electrifying our cars, trucks and buses. We all deserve clean air and a stable climate, so we should make the most of the Volkswagen settlement money and accelerate electrification.”
Washington and Hawaii earned a top-of-the-class A+ for spending as much as the settlement allowed on electric vehicle charging infrastructure and electrified mass transit buses and ferries. Rhode Island and Vermont both garnered A’s. Each state committed substantial amounts to accelerate electrification, including electrifying their mass transit systems.
The states that collected F’s have limited or no plans to prioritize electric vehicles and infrastructure. But for poorly performing states that still have money, it’s not too late to direct it toward projects that center on electric mass transit and infrastructure, the report notes.
“Millions of cars will hit the roads this weekend and throughout the summer,” said Matt Casale, director of U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Transportation Campaign. “Imagine the benefits to the public health and the climate if those were electric cars with zero-tailpipe emissions, or, even better yet, if people had more clean public transportation options, such as electric buses. The Volkswagen settlement can help us get there, but only if states take full advantage of the opportunity.”
RIPIRG Education Fund is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being.
Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We work to protect the places we love, advance the environmental values we share, and win real results for our environment.