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Volkswagen scam: How will Florida spend its windfall from the diesel-gate settlement

Florida is trying to figure out how to spend the $166 million it received from the Volkswagen "diesel-gate" scandal. (Associated Press 2015)
Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn addresses the shareholders during the annual shareholder meeting in 2015. "I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public," he said in a statement. Associate Press (2015)
Florida is sorting out how to spend the $166 million it received as part of the Volkswagen diesel-gate scandal. Getty Images (2016)
Monday 20 August 2018 07.30

The state has a challenge: How to spend a windfall from the Volkswagen diesel-gate scandal.

The German manufacturer agreed to pay $2 billion to promote zero-emission vehicles and spend billions more to buy back or modify most of the cars. Nearly $3 billion more was set aside to compensate states.

Florida’s slice is $166 million.

Earlier this year, the Florida Department of Environment Protection asked the public for ideas on how to dole it out. More than 2,000 people took the survey. Many left comments, mostly anonymously.

A sampling:

Buy more electric buses.

Upgrade old tugboat engines to cleaner burning diesel.

Install more charging stations for electric cars.

A few were grandiose, and way over budget.

Build thorium-powered nuclear plants.

Solar for every home!

Several people made it clear what they hoped wouldn’t happen.

Don’t give it to private business.

Don’t let local governments waste it.

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Don’t let lobbyists influence the decision.

You can see why this will be a challenge. It helps that the jackpot comes with rules.

The state has to use the money to help lower emissions of an array of nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog. The focus is on replacing older diesel engines with cleaner alternatives. That can mean converting a freight truck to newer and cleaner-burning diesel technology or replacing an old school bus with an electric version. Also eligible: cars, boats, trains, forklifts and cargo handling equipment. The money can help build electric charging and hydrogen dispensing stations, as well.

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The state first has to outline its overall goal, explain how it addresses air quality in areas with the most smog, and estimate the reduction in nitrogen oxides. The draft should come out in the fall, at which point the public can weigh in again.

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Competition for the money will be intense and wide ranging. Local government agencies and businesses around the state have already created wish lists.

"It is a lot of money until you see the scope of the mitigation projects and the cost,’’ a DEP official said during one of the public webinars held in May.

Clearwater officials, for instance, would like about $1 million to upgrade the city’s compressed natural gas station, which serves 135 vehicles, said Joelle Castelli, Clearwater’s communications director. The upgrade would allow the city to convert about 20 more garbage trucks and several more utility vehicles.

Orlando leaders have said they could use settlement money to turn the city’s free downtown bus system into an electric fleet and add more than 100 vehicle charging stations.

"Our hope is that out of the $166 million, we could position Orlando to get about $15 (million) to $20 million," Orlando’s director of sustainability Chirs Castro told the Orlando Sentinel earlier this year.

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In 2015, Volkswagen admitted to covertly installing software in more than 500,000 cars that helped them pass exhaust tests. The cars emitted up to 40 times the legally allowable pollutants.

Florida received the third-highest settlement amount, behind California’s $423 million and Texas’ $209 million. Still, $166 million will only go so far in a state with a trillion-dollar economy.

And don’t expect it to flow out all at once. The state has up to 10 years to spend it.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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