Push for more access to electric vehicles revs up again in CT

Photo of Katrina Koerting

It could soon become easier to get an electric vehicle in Connecticut.

A bill recently advanced out of the transportation committee that will allow manufacturers to sell electric vehicles directly to consumers — something only automobile dealerships can now do. It would amend state statutes to allow electric vehicle manufacturers with sustainable business models and electric-only production to be granted new or used car dealer’s licenses. It’s now before the legislative commissioner’s office.

Proponents of the bill say this increases competition and will help reach environmental goals by letting Connecticut drivers buy these vehicles without having to cross state lines. Opponents argue the bill isn’t necessary because consumers can already get those vehicles at Connecticut car dealerships and this change could harm those who work there.

“SB 127 recognizes the industry is changing and Connecticut should change with it,” said Barry Kresch, the EV Club CT leader and a Westport resident. “The friction of the current environment is holding us back from hitting ambitious EV adoption goals the state has set for it; this bill will benefit consumers, the environment and bring new jobs into this state.”

The bill came about from a grassroots effort among residents in the state, according to a recent news release.

It also comes as the state looks to revive the electric vehicle subsidies program.

Meeting a goal

As of Jan. 1, Connecticut had 13,800 electric vehicles registered in the state with about 4,400 registered in 2020 and 4,120 registered in 2019, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

While steady, it’s far short of the state’s goal of 125,000 to 150,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025, according to a report published last year by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection on how to accelerate electric vehicle adoption.

The report argues that adopting electric vehicles is one strategy that will help improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide. Transportation accounts for about 38.1 percent of those emissions.

“Connecticut suffers from some of the worst air quality in the country, especially along heavily-traveled transportation corridors where criteria air pollutants are most densely concentrated,” the report states. “Poor air quality exposure exacerbates acute and chronic respiratory problems such as asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and other lung diseases.”

State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said Connecticut’s larger goal is to have 500,000 electric vehicles on the road by the end of the decade.

“This is our moonshot, and we can do this provided we make laws that work for consumers and give them choices they want and the convenience they deserve,” he said.

Local support

According to 2020 data, Greenwich has the most electric vehicles registered in Connecticut with 795, followed by Stamford, Westport, Fairfield and West Hartford. However, Westport ranks first when considering the amount of electric cars per capita, which is 17.5 vehicles for every 1,000 residents in town.

It’s one reason Westport and its elected leaders have become strong supporters of the bill.

“Our community is very committed to this,” First Selectman Jim Marpe said at a recent rally at the Westport Train Station advocating for the bill. “We have hybrid and electric vehicles in our police force activity and are committed to walking the walk as much as talking the talk.”

He said Westport hopes to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and getting more electric vehicles into the community is the way to do it.

“We have 600; we need to get to 6,000, and the way we can do that more easily is to have showrooms allowing us to see and purchase those vehicles in a local fashion,” he said. “I’m a free markets guy, and I think competition is good for everyone. Dealerships will rise to the occasion and make sure they have electric vehicle alternatives to sell as well. This is one way we get to the answer we're all trying to get to.”

Opposition to the bill

Of the 80 or so people who submitted testimony on the bill to the committee, only nine opposed the proposal, all of whom were connected in some way to a car dealership.

“Consumers will no longer have our dealerships to advocate for them, and they will lose access to local and reliable repair services,” said Jeff Aiosa, the legislative co-chairman for the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association. “Senate Bill 127 jeopardizes the jobs of over 14,000 Connecticut employees.”

He said the dealerships already make it easy to purchase an electric vehicle, including partnering with the state’s incentive program, Connecticut Hydrogen and Electric Automobile Purchase Rebate, or CHEAPR.

“Connecticut new car dealers have quickly adapted to the promotion of a greener future,” Aiosa said. “Most dealerships utilize solar energy and offer electric vehicle charging stations. We make purchasing, servicing, and charging electric vehicles easily accessible to our consumers.”

A recent report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked Connecticut No. 13 nationally for encouraging consumers to buy electric vehicles, said Chip Gengras, president of Gengras Automotive in East Hartford and North Haven, as well as an officer with the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association.

He said the proposed bill harms the dealerships already selling these vehicles.

“This bill undermines our state franchise laws that regulate auto retailers and manufacturers, while providing an unfair advantage to out of state and out of country companies,” Gengras testified. “This bill will not only allow for an unlevel playing field to sell cars in our state, but also will extend that privilege to hundreds of foreign electric vehicle manufacturers, exporting jobs overseas.”

He said all Connecticut dealers are committed to selling electric vehicles and offer 40 different models.

“Nearly all manufactures now produce EVs.” Gengras said. “Some manufacturers, like Volvo, a brand that I sell, will be all electric in a few short years. Connecticut dealers are able and ready to meet the demands of EV consumers.”

Expanding choice

State Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, a co-sponsor of the bill and chairman of the transportation committee, said about 75 percent of car dealerships in the state didn’t sell any electric vehicles as of 2019.

“You can’t buy a Tesla, Lucid or Rivian without going to another state to make that purchase.,” he said. “I think Connecticut should do everything it can to make it easier to get behind the wheel of an electric vehicle, but instead our laws make it harder.”

He said consumers should be allowed to choose if they want to buy from a dealership or directly from the manufacturer.

Officials have also said Connecticut is only one of a few states that doesn’t already allow consumers to purchase from the manufacturer directly.

“By enabling direct sales of EVs, we are following the majority of states, which recognize that this consumer alternative will not cause broad job losses or end the dealership model,” said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a co-sponsor of the bill. “Encouraging the adoption of electric vehicles in our state will be good for car buyers, good for the economy, and good for the environment. It’s taken many years, but I believe we’re finally on the cusp of preparing Connecticut to fully participate in the post-Ice Age.”

kkoerting@newstimes.com