Spend VW’s diesel money on green technology in Florida | Column

Use the money on electric vehicle charging stations and electric buses, says state Sen. Lori Berman.
State Sen. Lori Berman
State Sen. Lori Berman
Published August 8
Updated August 8

By Sen. Lori Berman

Special to the Tampa Bay Times

Imagine getting a $166 million gift to clean up Florida’s vehicle emissions. Well, Florida got its $166 million gift when all 50 states received funds from Volkswagen’s $3 billion settlement with federal authorities over violations of emissions standards in diesel cars.

We can’t undo the damage caused by Volkswagen’s illegal polluting, but we have been given the chance to put a down payment on a cleaner transportation system.

Last month, Florida finally released its draft spending plan for the $166 million. The release of this plan, drawn up by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), was long overdue. In fact, Florida was the last state to release its spending plan.

The public has a 30-day window in which to comment, concluding on Aug. 16. As it stands, the plan leaves much to be desired.

The good news? Fifteen percent of the $166 million is going toward electric vehicle charging stations, as announced by Gov. Ron DeSantis, to be installed at Florida’s Turnpike toll plazas. This is a good, commonsense idea that we should be accelerating.

But the bad news is that with the rest of the money, we are poised to replace diesel vehicles with more diesel vehicles.

A survey indicated that most Floridians want the money spent on school, transit and shuttle buses. The DEP responded by dedicating about 70 percent of funding in the draft plan to bus replacements, but expressed a very clear preference for buying new diesel buses instead of electric ones.

Diesel emissions contribute to global warming and can cause respiratory diseases. The negative effects are especially pronounced in children. Electric buses, on the other hand, have zero tailpipe emissions, significantly reducing these negative effects.

Unfortunately, the DEP is letting short-term thinking get in the way of long-term progress. The DEP prefers spending the money on diesel buses because diesel buses are cheaper. But this money shouldn’t be just about a one-time purchase of buses, it should be about the transition to a cleaner, greener transportation network. And the DEP has failed to consider options other states are pursuing, like covering the marginal cost between a diesel and electric bus instead of the full cost of a bus, which could maximize the money’s reach and bring more electric buses to our state.

There is no question that we need cleaner vehicles on our roads – and there is no cleaner vehicle than an EV.

Consider the transformation this money offers. It will help build our network of electric vehicle charging stations, but we could also dramatically increase the number of EVs on the road by using it to help convert fleets of transit and school buses over to electric. If we spend this money in these areas, the air around our cities and towns will be cleaner and Floridians will be healthier.

Florida should be a leader in clean, green technology and pro-environmental changes. The Volkswagen settlement presents a golden opportunity that we shouldn’t squander by spending the money on more diesel.

Lori Berman, a Democrat from Boynton Beach, represents District 31, which includes parts of central Palm Beach County, in the Florida Senate.

The department published a draft Beneficiary Mitigation Plan for public comment on July 17, 2019, for a period of 30 days. All public comments must be submitted via email to VWMitigation@FloridaDEP.gov by 5 p.m., Friday, Aug. 16.