Salt Lake City will reduce the number of clean cars that can park for free next year by 87%

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Downtown Salt Lake City pictured on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. Changes are coming to the city's Green Vehicle program that will reduce the number of eligible vehicles by 87% next year.

For years, Salt Lake City has offered free parking to residents who have moved from standard gas powered cars to cleaner models. And the program has worked — though a little too well in recent years, as more electric cars on the market have resulted in the city losing more parking money than it envisioned.

To counteract that, the city is poised to make it harder to get a “green vehicles” permit by requiring new standards next year that will have the effect of reducing the number of eligible drivers by 87%.

But some Salt Lake City residents are frustrated by the changes, which may inadvertently penalize those who were among the first to buy clean vehicle technology. And Salt Lake City Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall called the new requirements “shortsighted.”

[Read more: Thinking beyond the gas tax, Utah launches fee per miles driven for alt-fuel cars]

As of Dec. 31, cars will have to meet strict performance requirements for greenhouse gas and smog-forming emissions established by the Environmental Protection Agency in order to qualify for the free parking pass. Those SmartWay Elite Certified Vehicle standards are updated each year and eligibility for the permits in Salt Lake City will be reviewed annually.

In general, vehicles that are all-electric or hydrogen powered continue to qualify. But those that run on gas do not, neither do those that rely on natural gas or hybrids older than 2012, with some exceptions, according to a letter the city sent to permit holders this fall.

Salt Lake City resident Aspen Anderson bought a new car earlier this year in part to continue complying with the changes to the HOV lanes and the city’s Green Vehicle Permit.

But she was “disappointed” to find out recently that her new Chevy Volt doesn’t qualify for the new program.

“It seems like splitting hairs a bit to have certain versions of the same car qualify or not qualify,” she said in an email. “I understand they have to raise the standards, which I see as an excellent sign that we as a community and society are moving in the right direction. I did purchase a new car partially to continue qualifying for those benefits, but I spent $17 in gas my first month owning it, so I still feel like I’m ahead of the game.”

When the Green Vehicles permit began in 2006, there were 124 vehicle types eligible, according to city documents. By 2017, the number of qualified automobiles manufactured since 2000 had grown to 1,186 — an 856% spike.

The new guidelines better match the original intent of the program: “to only incentivize the best-performing vehicles,” Dan Bergenthal, a program manager with Salt Lake City’s transportation division, told council members last year.

(Screenshot courtesy Salt Lake City government) The number of qualifying vehicles under the Salt Lake City Green Vehicle permit program has increased from 124 in 2006 to 1,186 in 2017.

The growing number of eligible vehicles taking up parking spots has led to an increased loss in city revenue. At the program’s inception, the city expected to lose up to $8,500 each year. In 2018, city officials told the council they estimated it would cost $50,000 a year.

The new rules, which the City Council unanimously approved last summer, will shrink that loss to about $7,000 and reduce the number of eligible makes and models to about 177.

As the council discussed the changes to its program in 2018, Councilman Andrew Johnston said he worried about economic equity, since cars that can now be purchased at lower prices are less likely to qualify for the permit.

“Not a ton of these vehicles have quite dropped in price to the point where it’s mass accessible to a lot of people who don’t have a lot of money,” he said.

Essentially only those who can afford more expensive environmentally friendly cars would get to park for free.

Mendenhall, a Salt Lake City Councilwoman who joined the rest of her colleagues in voting for the ordinance last year, said at a mayoral debate this fall that she thought the city should “reexamine” the changes to the Green Vehicle permits.

“Salt Lake City needs to realize that some of those early adopters of hybrids and electric vehicles 2012 and older are getting priced out right now," she said. "And that is such a disincentive, truly, for people to continue to participate and make investments in their own homes and budgets and businesses.”

Mendenhall drives an electric vehicle but is not impacted by the changes, her spokeswoman confirmed.

In a written statement, the mayor-elect advocated for strengthening vehicle incentives “in the areas where we can control" them rather than “creating new barriers for a growing component of the automotive market that supports cleaner air.”

“The future of the automobile industry is electric and decreasing eligibility for the SLC Green parking permit is shortsighted,” she concluded.

Vehicles are among the state’s biggest polluters, with mobile sources contributing around 48% to particulate pollution, though that number is expected to drop over the next few years as technology improves and under stricter federal emissions standards.

Salt Lake City’s Sustainability Department was involved in crafting the new rules and expressed support for the ordinance, which former sustainability program manager Tyler Poulson characterized as striking the “right balance” while modernizing the policy “to align with technology.”

“It probably needs to be done and now is arguably a better time before we grow from 3,500 vehicles to many more than that in a year or two,” he told the council last year.

Residents can check the city’s website to see if they still qualify for the permit at slc.gov/transportation/green-vehicle-parking-permits. To obtain a new permit, eligible car owners should bring their vehicle registration, driver license and their qualifying vehicle to the Transportation Division office at City Hall along with proof of Utah residency if their vehicle registration is from another state.

Anyone trying to park for free in a metered parking stall using one of the old permits or a Utah Clean Fuel Clean Air license plate as of Dec. 31 will be issued a citation, the city warned permit holders in its letter.

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