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Car Dealers That Miss Zero-Emission Quota Could Be Barred from NJ Market

State law, based on California clean-air program, sets ambitious sales targets for hybrid vehicles

electric car

In five years, up to 19,000 plug-in electric vehicles could be sold in New Jersey. But the possibility that it may not happen is very worrisome to the state’s automotive retailers, who are supposed to achieve that goal.

Under a decade-old law, car dealers must ratchet up sales of zero-emission and hybrid vehicles dramatically in the next several years, or face draconian sanctions. The penalties could exclude car manufacturers from selling any of their vehicles in the state -- whether they are cleaner-running or more traditional models.

The first question that needs to be asked: Will consumers be interested in purchasing the more expensive zero-emission cars even as manufacturers rev up efforts to sell them? At least 14 plug-in vehicles are available to consumers, and more are on the way.

So far, the results are not encouraging.

Auto retailers project plug-in vehicle sales will reach 905 units this year, according to James Appleton, president of New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers. In 12 years, 77,000 plug-in electric vehicles will have to be sold annually under the law, he said.

The 10-year-old law binds New Jersey to the requirements of the California Low Emission Vehicle program, the mandates set by an obscure regulatory agency most residents here hardly know -- the California Air Resources Board.

Appleton told legislators last week his dealers want to sell the cleaner-running cars, but are not sure consumers will buy them at the rate prescribed by the California program. New Jersey cannot amend the program; it can only opt out of the initiative.

“The time is way past when we need to take a look at where we are,’’ said Appleton, referring to how New Jersey plans to meet the stringent standards set by the California program. “We just don’t see the market there now.’’

If so, the prospect bodes badly for auto retailers here. Imagine going to a dealer to buy a Ford, BMW, or Toyota and being told there are not any new models in stock because the manufacturer has failed to meet the requirements of the California program and the dealer cannot sell them.

“It would create an economic situation that is completely untenable,’’ Appleton predicted.

The state was supposed to set up a task force to figure out how to implement the law, passed in 2003, but it never happened. Earlier this year, Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed a bill finally setting up a clean-vehicle task force to study the issue and make suggestions on how to implement the program.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature balked, however, at concurring with Christie's recommendations, mainly because they included a provision giving the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection the authority to accept or reject the implementation of the zero-emission vehicle requirement.

A bill (S-3069) now moving forward in the state Senate would strip that provision out of the measure and preclude the task force from recommending the discontinuation of the California LEV initiative.

But the bill contains many of the recommendations suggested by the governor in his conditional veto message. Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), its sponsor, said, “We’re trying to give the governor a bill he can sign,’’ he said.

His bill also addresses a potentially more complicated issue, asking the task force to study the revenue impact of switching to zero-emission and alternative-fueled vehicles on the gasoline taxes and on the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. The fund, essentially broke, would lose desperately needed money because alternative fuels are not yet covered by gasoline taxes, drying up cash for new transportation projects.

A potentially bigger problem is dealing with the overriding issue facing motorists who want to buy a plug-in vehicle: range anxiety, the fear they will be unable to find a charging station when a vehicle is running out of juice.

New Jersey is lagging behind many other states in developing the infrastructure for plug-in vehicles, according to some environmentalists. The state has approximately 120 plug-in vehicle-charging stations, far too few to give consumers enough confidence to buy the cars, some critics say.

“We don’t even have a plan in place,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We’ve done nothing to build the necessary infrastructure.’’

The failure to embrace cleaner-running cars is especially troubling to environmental groups because the transportation sector is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global climate change.

“New Jersey has done nothing when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases dealing with mobile sources,’’ said Tittel, referring to cars, trucks, and other vehicles.

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