Advocates challenge states to use VW funds to boost electric vehicle use

States could invest in battery-electric, zero-emission buses like this one in northern California with potential Volkswagen settlement money. (Photo by San Joaquin RTD/Creative Commons)

The $2.7 billion that states will share under a proposed Volkswagen settlement could also be used to develop electric-vehicle charging stations. (Photo by rudisillart/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Environmental advocates are challenging Arizona and states across the Southwest to use funds from a potential Volkswagen lawsuit settlement to invest in electric-vehicle charging stations and to electrify public transit.

The states stand to share in a $2.7 billion fund Volkswagen is expected to pay as part of a $14.7 billion deal to settle federal charges that it rigged some of its “clean diesel” cars with software that allowed them to cheat emissions tests.

Arizona would get $53 million if the settlement is approved by a U.S. District Court judge in California, who indicated Tuesday that he could act by next week.

“We encourage concerned consumers to let the governor know that funding should go towards the cleanest transportation systems possible under the settlement,” said Diane Brown, executive director for the Arizona PIRG Education Fund.

The organization wants Arizona to go all in for zero-emissions electric infrastructure. Under the proposed settlement, states can use up to 15 percent of their share of the $2.7 billion fund to develop an electric-vehicle charging network and use the rest to buy electric buses.

State governors have to designate an agency to manage the funds, which are allotted based on the number of Volkswagens registered in the state that had the emissions test “defeat devices.” Arizona had about 10,000 of the 580,000 vehicles in the U.S., entitling the state to just under 2 percent of the remediation fund.

The proposed settlement calls for states to opt-in 90 days after a federal trust is set up. Designated state agencies would then have an additional 30 days to submit plans for how they intend to use the funds.

Brown and advocates from the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP) imagine a robust electric-vehicle charging network along highways across the Four Corners states and complete investment in electric bus systems to replace fleets in cities in the region.

While the largest portion of the settlement, $10 billion, will go to a buy-back program for consumers who bought or leased the questionable Volkswagens, Brown said the state funding is vital because the cheating affected more than just VW drivers.

“It is important to keep in mind what occurred with VW’s defeat devices in the first place,” Brown said.

“Ensuring the state moves forward with the cleanest possible buses and further development of infrastructure for EV charging stations” best addresses the harmful emissions the that the faultily Volkswagen diesel engines released, she said.

Arizona could use its 15 percent of the $53 million to build out the electric-vehicle charging infrastructure, potentially developing 60 charging stations along the state’s interstate highways, according to the groups. The remaining 85 percent of the remediation fund could be used to replace heavy-duty vehicles, such as buses, with vehicles that more efficiently burn fossil fuels or run on electricity.

“Electric transit buses are really the farthest along, and the best, fullest technology available,” said Mike Salisbury, a senior research associate for SWEEP’s transportation programs. “The newest electric buses have ranges 200-300 miles, and that easily meets the demand of transit routes.”

An electric bus also offers a 40 percent reduction of the nitrogen oxide emissions the remediation fund aims to reduce, he said. Environmental advocates see that as a better option than more fuel-efficient diesel buses or those that run on natural gas.

The governor’s office and Arizona state agencies were not able to comment on any potential plans to use the settlement money, citing the fact that the suit is still pending.