LB 1100 : Key to a New Transportation Paradigm in Nebraska

By Bill Moore

Posted: 11 Feb 2010

The 2010 session of the Unicameral will be considering a number of important pieces of 'green' legislation: LB 977 requiring new state buildings and renovations to meet energy efficiency standards; LB 978 requiring Energy Star appliances be part of Nebraska's competitive bidding process; LB 1098 authorizing establishment of sustainable energy funding districts and Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs to enable affordable homeowner financing of energy efficiency improvements.

And among this list of important measures is LB 1100, which would allow the operation of low-speed vehicles meeting Federal safety standards on public roads with speed limits less than 35 mph. The significance of this measure may seem inconsequential compared to those listed above, but it, in fact, is the key to opening a new transportation and energy paradigm for all the citizens of Nebraska.

The technology at the heart of LB 1100 is what are called 'neighborhood electric vehicles' or NEVs. These are a special class of motor vehicles first recognized in federal motor vehicle safety laws (FMVSS 500) in 1998. As early as the war years of the 1940s, small electric cars began to emerge both in war time France and in California as a way to deal with petroleum shortages and rationing. After the war, a California businessman took the concept onto the links and the golf car was born, initially all battery powered.

In the 1960's, retirees and winter residents of places like Palm Springs, California and Sun City, Arizona began using their golf cars on public streets in place of their automobiles. As the practice spread, public safety officials became concerned about the possibility of collisions between the slow moving golf cars and conventional automobiles. By the 1990's, a young automotive designer named Dan Sturgis developed the prototype for a larger, faster, safer, dual-purpose vehicle that could operate on both the golf course and city streets: and the idea of the neighborhood electric vehicle took form; culminating in the creation of the 1998 federal standard that requires safety features on NEVs no found on conventional golf cars. In exchange, these vehicles are allowed access to public streets as long as the speed limit is 35 mph or less, and the vehicle has a top speed of no more than 25 mph, twice that of the conventional golf car.

While the federal government officially sanctions the operation of low-speed vehicles, including NEVs, on public streets, it has left it to the discretion of the states as to whether they would permit their operation within their jurisdictions. Today, among the 40-plus states with statutes on the books allowing their operation: including South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming; only Nebraska remains the lone hold-out in our region. LB 1100 would redress that situation. Simply stated, it says that if a low-speed vehicle meets FMVSS 500 standards, it shall be permitted to operate on Nebraska roadways with posted speed limits of 35 mph or less. The driver must have a valid driver's license and the vehicle must be properly licensed and insured.

The significance of LB 1100 goes well beyond its seemingly innocuous nature: it represents the first serious step in the shift away from petroleum-dependent motor vehicles. Virtually all car, trucks and off-road equipment operated in the state are partly or entirely dependent on petroleum or its by-products: gasoline, diesel, propane. Even Nebraska-produced E85 ethanol contains 15% petroleum. The one energy source that is not dependent on some form of petroleum is electricity. Only about 2% of the nation's electric power is generated from petroleum; the rest comes from largely indigenous primary energy sources: coal, natural gas, hydropower, nuclear power and, increasingly, renewables such as wind, with which Nebraska is wonderfully blessed.

While technically a low-speed vehicle can be gasoline-powered, virtually all are electrically-driven. They are quiet, cheap to run, and emit no tailpipe pollution. Importantly, they offer Nebraskans choice: choice of an American-made, and more specifically, Nebraska generated energy source. They offer more vehicle choice as a viable form of personal mobility that isn't a bicycle nor an automobile, but something benignly in between: one that could continue to permit my aging parents a measure of personal freedom after they can no longer safely drive a conventional automobile. They also offer an environmental choice in terms of their overall emissions; where it is nearly impossible to regulate and clean up the tailpipe emissions of the state's more than 2 million gasoline and diesel-fueled cars and trucks, it's much easier to do so for our seven coal-fired power plants.

Finally, they offer an economic choice of where we spend our transportation energy dollars. At present, we Nebraskans spend nearly $3 billion annually on petroleum products, most of it on gasoline that is piped into the state, while our dollars flow the other way; some $831 million outside of the country to purchase crude oil and refined fuels from aboard. This is money that not only leaves America, but more specifically, leaves Nebraska; money that otherwise could continue to circulate within our own economy and that of our neighbors. The NEV uses power made in Nebraska, not extracted from the oil fields of Middle Eastern or African kleptocracies.

While in the larger scheme of things, LB 1100 may seem, comparatively, unimportant, allowing a few slow-moving, funny looking cars on our streets, but it is a crucial first step towards a more sustainable transportation paradigm, one not shackled to the whims of OPEC or the greed of commodity traders. It will be essential in moving us towards a 21st century world where smart electric power grids and even smarter vehicles communicate and share in the task of providing us with the reliable, abundant and affordable clean energy we want powering our homes and businesses, as well as moving ourselves and our goods from point A to point B. All great buildings start with the laying of a single brick, and open with a tiny key: LB 1100 is both that brick and that key.

If you believe LB 1100 should become law in Nebraska, please call, write or email your State Senator; and specifically let your views be known to Senator Debbie Fischer, who chairs the transportation committee. Her official email is [Neb residents only, please]. The first public hearing on LB 1100 will be the afternoon of February 22nd in the State Capitol in Lincoln.

Bill Moore is a long-time Nebraska resident and the publisher of EV World.Com, an online publication covering the world of electric vehicle technology since 1998.

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