May 26, 2004 – St. John architect Doug White says he sometimes thinks he's crazy. When he bought his first electric car from a Puerto Rico dealership in 2000, White had no idea it would take him four years or more to make it street legal.
And there is no guarantee his effort to register the Virgin Islands first low-speed vehicles will be successful. However, electric car advocates will get a chance to state their case at the upcoming public hearing on Omnibus crime bill, sponsored by Sen. Lorraine Berry.
Berry said she has no particular interest in electric cars herself. Instead, she was prompted to include the low-speed vehicle provision in her police reform bill by a petition signed by 600 residents. Berry said she hopes she and other members of the Senate Committee on Police, Justice, Homeland Security and the Judiciary will be able at the hearing, June 3, on St. John to view a demonstration of the car's capabilities.
The measure has been included in the bill, she said, for the purpose of discussion. "We have a petition that came from the people of St. John. They want the introduction of electric cars, what they call low-speed vehicles," she said.
Berry said she has requested a special dispensation from the Motor Vehicles Bureau to allow White's electric car onto the streets of Cruz Bay to carry out the demonstration. White said because he has not been able to successfully register the car, or a similar one he keeps on St. Thomas, he usually does not drive in town.
"I attempted to register the first vehicle on both St. Thomas and St. John. They would not register it," White said Wednesday. Several months ago he was issued a ticket for driving an unregistered vehicle. When he challenged the ticket in traffic court, he lost.
Thirty-six U.S. states and Puerto Rico have provisions for the use of low-speed vehicles but currently the Virgin Islands does not. Among the advantages, said the architect, is that today's electric cars take up less parking space, do less damage to air quality, are quiet and fuel-efficient.
But Attorney General Iver Stridiron, who opposes the legalization of low-speed cars, describes them as potential road hazards.
"You have not only passenger vehicles but you've got heavy equipment — tractor-trailers and the like — traversing the same roadways. We don't have secondary roads, except on St. Croix, so all vehicles traverse the same roads in the territory. We were concerned about the conflicts between slow-moving vehicles and the regular vehicles that are heavier, faster and have far more safety devices on them," the attorney general said earlier this week.
White concedes there are negative issues associated with low-speed cars. They don't perform as well on hilly roads, like the ones commonly found on St. John, although he said the extended bed car he bought in 2003 is part of a new generation of electric cars that delivers more power. Operating that car over short distances on St. Thomas, White said he was able to park his SUV 80 percent of the time and forego the purchase of two tanks of gas a month.
But those who have the need for speed can forget it. This vehicle gets a top speed of less than 35 mph, which White said, means it should not be used to cross high-speed thoroughfares like the Melvin Evans Highway on St. Croix.
Long distance drivers are also unlikely to find their answer in a low-speed car but for short trips, White said, it can't be beat.
There is one more roadblock potentially facing this provision of the Omnibus bill. As far as White knows, his two electric cars are the only ones of their kind in the territory, which poses a scenario of setting up a law that would benefit a scant few.
Nonetheless, he said if the law was in place, it might encourage others to hop on the low-speed, electrically powered bandwagon. "I've had numerous people who have told me they are interested in buying these cars," White said, but most questioned the sense of buying a car they can't use because they can't get it registered.
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