Volkswagen Settlement Money Will Buy Electric Buses

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The public comment period is over and Rhode Island is ready to spend its share of the money from the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

Most of the settlement funds will be spent on a plan between the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) and the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to electrify a portion of state’s fleet of 250 buses.

Beginning this fall, a share of the $14.4 million will be spent on leasing three electric buses for 36 months. The leases will serve as a pilot study to see if the vehicles can meet the demands and range of RIPTA’s fossil-fuel and hybrid buses. The electric buses will be charged at night and during off-peak hours.

If the pilot is successful, RIPTA will buy 16 to 20 electric buses in three years. Settlement funds will also be spent on charging equipment for the buses and on 15 to 30 new public DC fast-charging stations for all types of zero-emission vehicles. Rhode Island currently has eight public fast-charging stations.

The new buses will be used on routes with the highest asthma rates, as determined by the Department of Health, in hopes of reducing air pollution in those areas. The make and model of the buses haven't been announced.

New electric buses cost as much as $1 million each. Subsides and funds already designated for new bus purchases will contribute about $365,000 toward each purchase. Combined with government grants and other subsidies, the state could spend more than $25 million on the electric vehicle projects.

The new buses are projected to help the state reach its emission-reduction targets set for 2035.

The state received the Volkswagen settlement money after the German automaker installed “defeat device” software in its diesel vehicles that falsified its emissions of nitrogen oxide. The actual emissions of air pollutants were 40 times higher than reported. Rhode Island received $14.4 million for the 3,292 of the diesel vehicles sold or leased in the state.

Another $4.1 million was awarded to the office of attorney general. Those funds will be spent on “environmentally beneficial projects” as directed by the attorney general.

The terms of the 2015 settlement required that Rhode Island spend $14.4 million over 10 years on mitigation projects through DEM. Those projects must reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. Other states have spent settlement funds on low-emission school buses.

“There is a very specific set of activities that the settlement money can be used for,” DEM director Janet Coit said.

Volkswagen and Audi vehicle owners in Rhode Island received between $5,100 and $10,000 in restitution based on the make of the diesel vehicles sold between 2008 and 2015. Volkswagen repurchased the vehicles or modified the exhaust systems to meet emission standards.

The $20 billion-plus payout by the German automaker for its rigged emissions system is the most expensive consumer-fraud case in U.S. history.