Killing exclusive electric-car parking spots is 'a bait-and-switch'

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Electric car owner Debbie Lewis Lutz relaxes with her children, Rose, 4, and Gus, 2, as her car charges in front of her home.

Ever since President Trump began unwinding the environmental regulations that protect America’s air and water, the optimists have been saying that cities would take over the fight against climate change. After all, urban leaders have seen firsthand how green policies -- energy-efficient buildings, mass transit, bike lanes -- can help cities attract companies and jobs.

It turns out that Philadelphia’s City Council marches to a different band, one led by the gas-guzzlers. On Thursday morning, its members voted, 11-6, to approve a bill that would roll back a small, but symbolic, piece of the city’s green infrastructure.

Cosponsored by Councilmen David Oh and Mark Squilla, the bill would impose a moratorium on setting aside new on-street parking spaces for owners of fuel-efficient electric cars. Even worse, it would make it more difficult for current permit holders to access their reserved charging stations during business hours to juice up batteries. Because the moratorium has no end date, the bill would effectively kill the 10-year-old electric-car program, tarnishing the city’s reputation for green initiatives.

Unlike the owners of gas-powered cars, who can fuel up just about anywhere, the owners of electric vehicles need a dedicated parking spot in front of their homes to install their own hookup. Once a vehicle is charged, they can tool around town without using a drop of gasoline or emitting any noxious gases. But Council, and some neighborhood groups, have decided that parting with those precious street spaces is too high a price to pay for a cleaner world.

So, how much parking has been sacrificed so those tree huggers can cut their carbon use?

Since 2007, when Philadelphia began actively encouraging residents to buy electric cars, precisely 56 people have qualified for designated parking spaces. Twelve more have been in limbo since the bill was introduced. In case you were wondering, the Philadelphia Parking Authority says there are 43,000 on-street spaces available in neighborhoods that have meters or permit parking. There are easily 10 times more unregulated spots across the city. Of course, it's not as though electric-car owners are reducing the total available spaces; if they don't park in front of their houses, they will have to park somewhere.

To hear Oh and Squilla tell it, the moratorium is urgently necessary to give the city time to figure out how to manage the rapidly growing number of electric cars. As the vehicles become more popular, the councilmen fear a massive privatization of Philadelphia’s curb space. They want to explore whether it’s possible to establish a network of charging stations in garages or other locations.

Oh and Squilla are certainly correct that we will soon see more Teslas, Chevy Volts, and Nissan Leafs cruising the streets. Prices are dropping fast, making electric cars a better buy than their gasoline-fueled siblings. But let’s be honest: The real driver of this moratorium isn’t where to locate the charging stations. It’s parking envy.

This bill came into being after several residents grumbled that their neighbors were getting the equivalent of free parking simply for buying an electric car. The early adopters were mocked as wealthy takers who “steal spots” from everyday folks.

Such ill-informed talk appears all over the web these days. What’s astonishing is that Oh and Squilla would put that ignorance into law.

The city’s electric-car program didn’t happen by accident. It was adopted as part of the Nutter administration's effort to make Philadelphia one of the greenest cities in America. The law’s sponsor? None other than former councilman, and now mayor, Jim Kenney.

When Nutter introduced his green initiative, he understood that sustainability was  good for both business and the future of the planet. His administration ramped up recycling, offered zoning bonuses for energy-efficient buildings, encouraged bike sharing and car sharing, and sweetened the deal for people who bought electric vehicles.

Those vehicles didn’t come cheap in 2007, and no one took advantage of the program for the first few years, despite the enticement of a dedicated parking space.

But once the federal government started offering tax rebates for buying electric, people like Debbie Lewis Lutz became converts. She runs a small electrical contracting company with her husband, Bill Lutz, a licensed master electrician. After installing several charging stations for customers, they leased a cute Ford C-Max hybrid in 2012 and applied for a dedicated parking space in front of their Passyunk Square home. Today, Debbie Lutz told me, they are so passionate about sustainability, they plan to install rooftop solar panels to generate electricity for their charger.

The rationale for giving out such spaces has to do with the current state of electric-car technology. Except for high-end models with fast chargers, it can take four hours to fully charge an electric-car battery, particularly in cold weather.

Though people who drive gas-powered cars can be confident of finding a gas station wherever they go, it will be years before electric cars have the same option. Because Philadelphia wanted to encourage people to buy electric cars, it decided the best option was to let people install chargers in front of their homes. “It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” Lutz said. “You need a density of users before you’ll see a network of charging stations."

Electric cars drastically reduce fuel costs, but the early adopters aren’t in it for the money -- or the free parking, said Jonathan Fink, a cellist and Realtor. Between buying a BMW i3 for $36,000, installing a charger for $3,000, and paying city fees, he has yet to break even. “We just wanted to lower our carbon footprint. The city program made that doable,” Fink said.

The worst part of the bill isn’t actually the moratorium. At Oh’s insistence, a provision was added that would eliminate the exclusive, 24-hour curbside parking access the city gave to electric-car owners.

Under the bill, any car would be able to park in the electric-vehicle spots between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Changing the rules in the middle of the game is grossly unfair to people who invested thousands in the new technology. “I feel like it’s a bait-and-switch,” said Mary Pisculli, a Society Hill resident who spent $58,000 on an electric Volvo.

This isn’t the first time Council has balked at the sacrifices necessary to make the city more sustainable. Councilman William K. Greenlee has been blocking a key segment of the 22nd Street bike lane for years.

It’s not unreasonable for the city to want to rethink the best way to set up an electric-charging network. But more thoughtful legislators would have done the research first, rather than repeal without a viable replacement. A veto from Kenney would allow time for more study.

Philadelphia’s air-quality rating is among the worst in the nation, causing dozens of premature deaths every year, said Joe Minott of the Clean Air Council. Electric cars could help save lives. But Philadelphia legislators are more worried about parking.