Road Worrier

House grants reprieve for full-color license plates

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJune 11, 2012 

New versions of full-color special plates put the license number inside a white rectangle, for better legibility. State law says these color plates will be replaced again in 2015, with a generic white background. Friends of the Smokies collected $430,000 in N.C. license plate revenues in 2011.

FRIENDS OF THE SMOKIES

Thanks to the lucrative appeal of a special blue-on-yellow license plate, a nonprofit foundation has more than enough money this year to build a handicapped-accessible trail at Abbott Lake, improve more trails at Price Lake and install bathrooms at Graveyard Fields – all part of the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina.

The parkway plate with its “Share the Journey” slogan is the most popular item on a list of special license tags that the General Assembly decided last year to eliminate by 2015.

While promoting pastimes and tourism, these plates also raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to support parks and charities. Other items on this endangered list are plates for NASCAR racing, coastal preservation, surfing, forestry, tennis, duck hunting, the Appalachian Trail and the Great Smoky Mountains.

Now there’s a push to grant a reprieve.

Buoyed by an endorsement from the state Highway Patrol and the Division of Motor Vehicles, the House of Representatives voted 115-0 last week to repeal last year’s decision to rid our highways of these pretty plates. But it’s not clear that the Senate will agree even to consider the idea.

“I think it’ll be very challenging to get the Senate to take it up,” said Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a Marion Republican who is the bill’s chief sponsor. “It’ll probably never get through the Senate this year unless a lot of members agree.”

It was the Senate that amended another Gillespie bill on license plates that became law last year. By 2015, the distinctive full-color plates are to be replaced with a generic design used for university alumni groups and other nonprofits: a white background and the “First in Flight” slogan, with each group distinguished only by a logo.

The House went along with the change in 2011, over Gillespie’s objection, after a provision was added to have DMV and law enforcement agencies study whether toll-road cameras and police actually had difficulty reading these plates.

Those agencies reported to the legislature in April that the full-color plates were not a problem, now that DMV has begun implementing another change ordered by the legislature in 2011: It is redesigning each color plate to frame the license number inside a white rectangle, for better legibility, while leaving the surrounding color unchanged.

The nonprofit foundations that rely on the color plates are alarmed about the prospect of switching to the plain-white version in 2015. And they are uneasy even about the white-rectangle version they’ll have to use until then. If drivers stop buying them, these groups will suffer.

“We did a survey last year and found that about 37 percent of the people who purchase specialty plates, including ours, did so because they like the appearance,” said Carolyn Ward, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, based in Winston-Salem. “So there is quite a bit of fear that if we change that design and go to the more vanilla flavor, that we will lose a significant amount of that income stream.”

More than 27,000 drivers pay the state an extra $30 each year for the privilege of decorating their cars and trucks with the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation’s “Share the Journey” plate. DMV keeps $10 and gives the other $20 to the foundation.

That’s most of the money the foundation takes in to support the National Park Service’s scenic parkway with education programs, safety training and equipment, habitat restoration and visitor amenities.

“We’re able to do quite a bit for the Blue Ridge Parkway that they otherwise can’t do for themselves,” Ward said. This year, the foundation has promised the park service $700,000 in all.

The parkway foundation recently ran out of its old full-color plates. Next week, DMV will start sending out the modified white-rectangle version.

Friends of the Smokies made the same switch in March for its black-bear plate. Since then, sales have dropped off.

“It’s not great,” said Holly Demuth, the Smokies group’s director for North Carolina. “But we’re hopeful that people will still find them attractive with the white box, and continue buying them and renewing their plates.”

Senate leaders last week shut down their policy-related committees to focus on fiscal issues including the budget proposal they released Monday. Gillespie said he hopes supporters will lobby senators to take up the license plate bill that won unanimous approval in the House last week.

Demuth agrees. She doesn’t want to have to start all over again in 2013.

“It’s important we get this passed this year,” Demuth said.

Make contact: 919-829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com. On the Web at twitter.com/Road_Worrier/ and blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown/. Please include address and daytime phone.

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