Debate over how to spend NJ’s share of Volkswagen settlement money

Some legislators want to spend the money on reducing diesel emissions and adding more charging stations.

By Brenda Flanagan

“They’re ponying up and it’s good. Because you know what? It’s outrageous what they did,” said Sen. Kip Bateman.

Bateman’s talking about Volkswagen — the German carmaker that got caught cheating on dirty diesel engine emissions.

“What happened was Volkswagen had basically installed software in roughly about half a million cars in the U.S. to cheat the emission standards,” Bateman said.

Volkswagen agreed to pay $2.7 billion in total damages and New Jersey’s share is a combined $72 million, determined by the number of rigged cars registered here. Bateman and Sen. Bob Smith co-sponsored a bill that directs the State Department of Environmental Protection how to spend Jersey’s share.

“In this case, I think the punishment fits the crime. If Volkswagen is being punished for not obeying our clean air laws, the money that’s recovered should be used to help clean up our air,” Smith said.

“We know VW settlement money will be going for good purposes — to clean up our air and to electrify our cars and trucks. But we need a road map and this bill provides that road map to make sure that we’re getting the best bang for the buck for that funding,” Environment New Jersey Director Doug O’Malley said.

Because transportation generates most of New Jersey’s air pollution, the bill mandates money should be spent on two main targets: reducing diesel emissions in ports where tractor trailers often line up for hours, waiting to load and unload, sending diesel fumes drifting over nearby Newark, Bayonne and Elizabeth. Also, 15 percent of the money should go to building more charging stations for zero-emission vehicles.

“I mean, it’s still very broad outlines, but we don’t believe in giving blank checks to anybody. We want to direct it. The single most important thing we could do for New Jersey right now to further clean up our air would be to really see a heavy emphasis on electronic vehicles,” said Smith.

New Jersey’s got only about 1,000 of these electric car charging stations across the state. That creates something called range anxiety where people are afraid to buy electric cars because they don’t want to run out of juice.

“I think that would probably be the only thing is just finding locations to recharge, enough of them,” said motorist Joe Galvao.

“Just as long as they had somewhere to plug in at. You know, you’re going to need somewhere to refuel it, so to say, right?” asked motorist Keith Miller.

Each state’s spending plan for its VW settlement check must be approved by a specially appointed board of trustees in order to get the money released. But not everyone’s on board with the Smith-Bateman plan — eight Republicans voted against it.

“There are other, alternative fuels, for example, that are excluded like natural gas, propane, liquefied natural gas, that type of thing. If they can be used safely, why wouldn’t they also be included as well?” Sen. Steve Oroho asked.

One possible obstacle? The state hasn’t officially decided to participate in the settlement, according to Environment New Jersey.

“But they haven’t said they’re going to take this money yet. So that should be the first thing, that the governor says, ‘yes, we’re going to take this money’ and then ultimately we need to make sure that we’re spending it in the best way possible,” O’Malley said.

We asked the Governor’s Office for clarification. They referred us to the DEP. The DEP wouldn’t comment. The bill is now in an Assembly committee.