News | February 23, 2021

Landmark clean transportation bills advance in Virginia

Transportation is the largest source of carbon pollution in Virginia, as it is across the South. People drive over 230 million miles every day in the state—farther than the distance to the sun and back—mostly in cars and trucks burning fossil fuels. Much of this travel needs to be shifted to cleaner modes, and the remaining tailpipe pollution eliminated through the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) and other clean vehicle technologies.

This will be the biggest step Virginia has taken to address the climate crisis.

Senior Attorney Trip Pollard, Leader of SELC’s Land and Program team

State lawmakers have begun to recognize the urgency of addressing transportation pollution. Virginia is poised to take its biggest step to date with the likely passage of a bill requiring adoption of Clean Car Standards that currently apply in 14 other states. More stringent than federal standards, auto manufacturers would have to increase the average fuel-efficiency of the cars they sell in Virginia over time, as well as deliver an increasing percentage of EVs for sale in the state or buy credits from other manufacturers who sell EVs here. Virginia would be the first state in the South to adopt these standards.

“This will be the biggest step Virginia has taken to address the climate crisis,” said Trip Pollard, leader of SELC’s Land and Community Program. “We know how harmful tailpipe pollution is. Requiring cleaner vehicles will provide tremendous benefits, improving our health and our environment.”

On Friday, the Clean Cars bill (HB1965) cleared what should be the last major hurdle to adoption when the Virginia Senate passed its version of the bill despite a last-minute attempt to effectively gut the bill’s key provisions. The House is expected to approve amendments that have been adopted since it passed the legislation, and the bill would then go to Governor Ralph Northam for signature; his administration has supported the bill.

According to one estimate, adopting the Clean Car Standards would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions in Virginia by 48 million metric tons through 2040, while also significantly reducing emissions of other harmful air pollutants. These standards are good for consumers too, giving Virginians more access to EVs, which are typically cheaper to own and operate over the life of the vehicle than gas-powered vehicles.

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Broader adoption of clean vehicles will also help chip away at some of the inequities built into our current transportation system. In Virginia, an estimated 750 people a year die prematurely due to exposure to transportation pollution, and low-income communities and people of color bear a disproportionate share of vehicle emissions. 

A range of groups, including other environmental organizations, business and health groups, and the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, came together this year to support a comprehensive package of bills that will accelerate clean vehicle adoption across Virginia. SELC played an integral role in educating legislators and the public on the benefits of adopting the Clean Car Standards and other bills, providing legal and policy analysis backing these bills, and working to reach a compromise with automakers to remove their opposition to the Clean Cars bill while joining them in supporting other bills.

In addition to the Clean Cars bill, Friday saw two other important EV-related bills advance. The House passed a bill to integrate EV charging infrastructure planning into Virginia’s Energy Plan (SB1223). The Senate also moved a bill forward that would provide rebates to Virginians who buy new or used EVs (HB1979), including enhanced rebates for lower-income buyers.

These bills build on actions taken by the Virginia General Assembly and the Northam administration in the past year that boosted funding for public transportation and rail and established plans to significantly expand rail service in the state. This session, the General Assembly is considering a further boost in rail funding and budgeting funds to reduce the impact of transit fares on low-income individuals, including reduced-fare programs and elimination of fares.

SELC has been advocating for these and other steps as part of a multi-faceted effort to help move the state toward a clean transportation future. These steps include increasing funding for EVs and the state’s charging network, reorienting state spending to increase investments in public transit, rail, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and promoting development policies that can reduce the amount of driving we have to do.

The biggest bang for the carbon-cutting buck in Virginia, and across the country, is in transportation. Virginia’s progress can create a model for other states as we all look to curb carbon pollution.