CITY HALL — Drivers of certain electric and low- or zero-emission vehicles are already exempt from having to pay parking meter tolls in Santa Monica, yet the City Council is seeking to clarify a law that spells this out to ensure it no longer conflicts with state rules, which appear to be causing some unintended consequences.
“I think we know we got a problem when a change in state law results in our local [former] State Assembly person getting a parking ticket in Santa Monica,” Councilmember Kevin McKeown said during a council meeting last month, referring to U.S. Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Calif.).
To receive the free parking benefit, the existing ordinance requires any eligible vehicle — including the popular electric mini-mobiles that resemble glorified golf carts (known as neighborhood electric vehicles, or NEVs) — to display a “valid and current” state-issued decal that certifies its eco-friendly status. Herein lies the rub.
“I’ve heard some concerns from people who drive those neighborhood electric vehicles that, suddenly, they weren’t getting the parking privileges they expected to have,” Councilmember Ted Winterer said.
Without up-to-date decals, the free parking privileges disappear and drivers of eligible vehicles could be ticketed if they don’t feed the meter.
McKeown, in an e-mail to the Daily Press, said the state recently discontinued issuance of the decals that city parking enforcement has used “to identify clean-air cars.”
“The new state stickers are only for vehicles capable of using freeway HOV lanes,” he added, “which means that neighborhood electric vehicles couldn’t get them.”
The top speed of a typical NEV is about 25 mph. In California, the vehicles are restricted to roads where the posted speed limit is 35 mph or less.
According to McKeown, the remedy is clear: remove the phrase “valid and current” from the ordinance as it pertains to the decals, thereby decoupling municipal policy from changing state rules.
Simple as that may be, making the change brings with it debate about whether electric and low- or zero-emission vehicles should be granted free parking privileges in the first place.
Mayor Pam O’Connor cast the lone dissent to the council’s pursuit of an ordinance amendment.
“I think it’s important to incentivize the market for electric vehicles,” she said, “but I don’t think giving free parking is the way to do that. The most environmental way to get around is to walk, to take the low-emission public transit, etc.”
In recent years, Santa Monica has raised parking meter rates in an effort to encourage alternative modes of travel and reduce traffic congestion Downtown.
When asked whether the proposed ordinance amendment contradicts this policy, McKeown told the Daily Press, “In this case, as in most, we’re balancing multiple interests and concerns. We want to reduce total vehicle use to cut down on traffic congestion, but also to promote better air quality. We would hope for fewer car trips in general, but also that more of those trips that do happen are in clean-air vehicles.”
So far this year, Americans have purchased 58,480 electric vehicles, with more than 10,000 being sold in August alone, obliterating the former record of 8,559 set in December 2012, according to a report by InsideEVs, which tracks the progress of every plug-in vehicle sold in America. The report looked at monthly sales for the major plug-in automakers. [It estimated sales by Tesla, since it only releases quarterly data.]
The figures prove “the business of electric vehicles is still the strongest automotive segment in America,” read the report.
A reason for the increase may be that manufacturers are slashing prices to encourage people to purchase their rides. Ford has cut prices for the 2014 Focus EV by $4,000 and the cost of the Nissan Leaf was lowered by $6,400 this year. That is on top of a federal tax credit and other state and local incentives.
As for NEVs, according to a 2011 report from Pike Research, the total number of NEVs on the world’s roadways are expected to grow to 695,000 by 2017, a 45 percent increase. During that period, the cleantech market intelligence firm forecasts that annual NEV sales will rise from 37,000 vehicles to nearly 55,000 units by 2017, and North America will account for 45 percent of annual sales.
“I’m hopeful there will come a time where we have market saturation of electric vehicles so we have to reconsider our policy about giving parking privileges,” Winterer said. “As we see more and more electric vehicles out there … then we’ll just have to take a look at changing this.”
The council must still sign off on the amendment. City Clerk Sarah Gorman said no date has been set for a vote.