More cities and towns offer incentives to drive 'green'

Wilmette, Ill., is the latest to offer perks for environmentally friendly autos, but the move is largely symbolic.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Its ordinance may not have the reach of California's tough vehicle-emissions standards or of the federal tax deductions for hybrid buyers, but the town of Wilmette – a well-heeled suburb on Chicago's North Shore – is making its own small effort to reward residents who think "green" when they buy cars.

On Tuesday night, village board members decided to raise Wilmette's vehicle sticker fee from $50 to $75 – except for drivers whose cars are environmentally friendly enough to qualify for either a $25 or $50 discount.

The new ordinance puts Wilmette and its 28,000 residents in the ranks of other towns and cities that have found their own ways to encourage greener vehicles.

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"I know people aren't going to decide to buy a particular car because they get a $25 break on the vehicle sticker, but it's getting discussion going," says Lali Watt, a Wilmette board member who chairs the finance committee. "It's raising awareness, giving kudos to people who are doing the right things, and really putting the word out there that there isn't this huge choice you have to make between being environmental or not."

Other cities' incentives

The sticker-fee break, pegged to an EPA designation that ranks a car's air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, is an unusual approach. Other cities – among them Salt Lake City; San Antonio, Texas; New Haven, Conn.; and Ferndale, Mich. – are offering free parking within city limits for hybrids or other green cars. More than 300 American towns and cities have pledged to meet the Kyoto Protocol goals for reducing carbon-dioxide pollution. (In the US, tailpipe emissions account for about 22 percent of CO2.)

"As Washington has had its head in the sand about global warming and new energy choices, it's really up to the states and local governments," says Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club's Illinois chapter. "And gestures like the one Wilmette is doing, it's a small reward to consumers who make the right choices, but it's a big signal to the world that they want to be part of the solution."

Voices of displeasure

Not everyone is happy about the new ordinance.

"I believe it's harmful to seniors, to our families [who might need larger cars], and to people who have fuel-efficient vehicles that are older," says village president Christopher Canning, the lone dissenting vote on Wilmette's board. The Environmental Protection Agency ratings – which drivers can look up at fueleconomy.gov to see if their cars qualify for either the Smart Way or Smart Way Elite designations – are available only for models made after 2000.

Herbert Sorock, a 28-year Wilmette resident who spoke at the meeting, had even stronger feelings. "To be busybodies in our car selection is unnecessary and a silly waste of the village's resources," he said. "What's the purpose of conferring a certain degree of virtue on somebody to the tune of $25 or $50?"

But Ms. Watt says the response has been almost all positive, and she hopes that the town can continue to find ways to make its own small contribution to a greener planet – through things like green building practices, incentives for pervious pavement, and limits on gas-powered blowers, in addition to vehicle incentives.

Right now, few Wilmette residents will be able to get the discounts. Just two models sold in the Midwest – both Hondas – qualify for the Smart Way Elite designation (and the $50 discount). Most such vehicles are sold only in California and the Northeast, to comply with tougher vehicle-emission rules. More cars qualify for the Smart Way designation, an EPA representative told the board at its meeting, explaining that about half of the 120 vehicles that fit in one of the two categories are sold throughout the country.

Salt Lake City, one of the first cities to give parking benefits to green vehicles, also ties its program to the EPA ratings. There, cars can park for free at city meters if they meet one of three criteria: they have a special clean-air plate (usually in alternative-fuel vehicles), get 50 miles per gallon in the city, or score at least 8 out of 10 on the EPA's pollution scale.

"It's been really educational for people – a lot had no idea what their pollution score was, or the mileage their car got," says Dan Bergenthal, a transportation engineer for the city. A few hundred people have signed up with the program so far, he says. "If all the cities would start doing this, it sure would send a message to the automakers that this is what we want out here."

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