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Harper-Madison questions electric vehicle resolution

Thursday, May 9, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Council Member Alison Alter’s resolution furthering Austin’s commitment to combating climate change seems exactly like the sort of statement Austinites expect from their leaders. Austin city councils have backed environmental initiatives, including reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, for many years.

The resolution, which appears on today’s agenda, zeros in on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, specifically through the electrification of cars and other vehicles. As stated in the resolution, Austin Energy has been a nationwide leader in providing a public electric vehicle charging network, rebates for charging stations and efforts to reach multifamily and low-income households with vehicle electrification.

But on Tuesday, District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison told colleagues that Alter’s resolution contained at least a dozen instances of language that “I honestly just don’t understand.” She also questioned why staff members were being asked to do a number of things in light of the fact that they are so busy. “I literally just went through this resolution asking myself, what does that even mean?”

Harper-Madison also questioned whether low-income people would have any interest in electric vehicles.

Council Member Delia Garza, who represents Southeast Austin, told Harper-Madison she understood her concerns. “Those of us who represent low-income districts, it’s hard sometimes when you see things on the agenda and you’re like, my folks just want a grocery store or a fire station. Why are we talking about this?”

Garza added, “That being said, I do think it’s important to think about these things and I do believe it’s important to think about the system as we go forward.” She said getting more people comfortable with electric cars and similar technology would benefit the environment.

She noted that she had purchased a used electric vehicle for just $7,000, showing that such cars are no longer only for the rich.

Mayor Steve Adler gave Alter a chance to explain her resolution, which she did while saying she would present an amended resolution on Thursday that would eliminate some of the language Harper-Madison questioned.

Karl Popham, manager for Austin Energy’s electric vehicles and emerging technologies program, explained that a nonprofit called 11th Hour gave the utility a grant to reach out to low-income communities. “That program’s called EVs for Everyone, and even though that seed money has been exhausted, Austin Energy has continued the program because we have seen some very good results from it.”

He said Council members Garza and Ann Kitchen recently launched a program called EVs for Schools at Aiken High School, which is about 80 percent low-income kids, to demonstrate the technology, which consists of charging stations for teachers and staff.

In addition, Austin Energy is working with LifeWorks, which helps the low-income community. Popham said the utility is working on a new service called General Motors Maven, which provides electric vehicles to people to help them get jobs as drivers for ride-sharing companies. He said people who enter the program are generally making only about $12,000 a year but can make $40,000 a year as a driver. When people enter the program they can try out an electric vehicle at no cost. If they decide they like it, they can rent the vehicle and eventually buy their own car.

Council members Alter and Pool will be holding a press conference with several of their colleagues at 9 a.m. Thursday to talk about their environmental initiatives. Alter will discuss her vehicle electrification resolution. Pool will discuss her resolution in support of the Green New Deal as proposed by members of Congress. Kitchen will talk about electrification and city transit goals and Council Member Paige Ellis will discuss electrification and the environment. Council Member Kathie Tovo will talk about climate resiliency. In addition, Estrella de Leon will talk about the Resilient Dove Springs Community Engagement Initiative and Beki Halpin of Climate Buddies will talk about electrification and climate impact.

Clarification: Alter clarified to the Austin Monitor that she she had written her amended language prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

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