Aiming to boost the fledgling market for plug-in vehicles, Maryland and seven other states pledged Thursday to use their governments' tax and spending powers to get 3.3 million "zero-emission" cars, trucks and vans on the road in the next dozen years.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and his counterparts in California, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont formally vowed to promote plug-in or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in their states. They signed an agreement promising to take steps in their states to expand consumer demand for the vehicles, which despite rapidly rising sales remain a tiny portion of the cars and trucks sold in the United States.
The governors committed to changing building codes to make it easier to build charging stations, buying zero-emissions vehicles for government fleets, offering tax breaks or other financial incentives to consumers, and discounting electric rates for home charging systems.
"A collective effort is important if you're going to come anywhere close to a goal like that," said Z. Andrew Farkas, director of the National Transportation Center at Morgan State University and a member of O'Malley's Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Council. "The automobile dealers are selling cars to a national marketplace, so collective action makes sense."
O'Malley called the initiative "a critical part" of the state's climate action plan, which aims to reduce climate-warming emissions of carbon dioxide by 25 percent by the end of the decade.
"The transition to these advanced-technology vehicles will support our efforts to achieve our air-quality and climate-change goals," the governor said. He said the measure would also "enhance energy security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil."
The states agreed to draw up an "action plan" over the next six months spelling out what each would do. But an O'Malley spokeswoman said Maryland already has taken steps to promote electric cars and trucks. Marylanders can now get a $1,000 tax credit for buying or leasing a plug-in vehicle and a credit of up to $400 for installing charging equipment.
AAA Mid-Atlantic "supports these initiatives that will help further spur the sales of electric vehicles, which in the long term will benefit all Marylanders in terms of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions," spokeswoman Christine Delise said.
Sales of electric cars, which debuted nearly three years ago, have more than tripled, from 17,000 nationwide in 2011 to about 52,000 last year. According to preliminary estimates, more than 40,000 plug-in cars were sold in the first half of this year, officials said, and more than 6,700 public charging stations have been installed.
Eight manufacturers now produce 16 zero-emissions models — nine of them battery-powered, two running on hydrogen fuel cells and five plug-in hybrids, which run on gasoline as well as battery power.
Electric cars tend to cost significantly more than like-size gas-powered vehicles, though the cost of operating them is much lower.
Environmentalists welcomed the announcement, noting that the eight states involved account for nearly a quarter of the nation's car market. Nearly 140,000 plug-in vehicles have been bought in the past three years, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, reducing the nation's gasoline use by about 40 million gallons per year.
California is the leader, the group said, accounting for 29 percent of all plug-in sales to date.
Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch called the states' pact "a new chapter in the long saga of the battle between states and car companies over the electric car."
"These governors are calling the bluff of car companies that advertise electric cars — but lobby against any requirement to actually sell them," O'Donnell said.
Some auto industry representatives also praised the program.
Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the agreement seems to move the industry "in the right direction" by strengthening markets outside of California.
The alliance represents some of the world's largest automakers, including Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen Group of America. It wrote a letter this week to the California Air Resources Board, which is reviewing state regulations for zero-emissions vehicles, urging the board to review the rules in the Northeastern states to better understand the sustainability of its efforts.
Newton said sales rates for zero-emissions models are seven times higher in California than in the Northeast because California has made "tremendous commitments to support [zero-emissions vehicles], from incentives to infrastructure investments," that don't exist in other states.
The alliance hopes the agreement will "reduce the gap in support" between states.
"Automakers are committed to these technologies. After all, automakers have invested billions of dollars in bringing these products to market," Newton said. "By next year, there will be 26 battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on sale, and we need a strong, robust, vibrant market for those vehicles."
Morgan State's Farkas said bolstering the market for zero-emissions vehicles is important as it finds its footing.
"The upfront cost is the major impediment to sales and leasing of such vehicles," he said. "But over time, with increased production and further innovation in the technology and lowering the cost of the battery, those costs will probably come down."
Maryland has 430 public charging stations. Only about 2,000 electric vehicles were sold in the state the first two years they were available, but a state spokeswoman, Samantha Kappalman, said sales rose from 227 in 2011 to 1,764 last year.
She said the state plans to spend $1 million in the coming year to put charging equipment at MARC and Metro rail stations for commuters. With added funding from private businesses, the state aims to add 150 to 200 new charging stations, many along the Interstate 95 corridor, to make it easier for EV owners to take long trips.
The O'Malley administration also intends to encourage state agencies to buy plug-in vehicles with a goal of making them 10 percent of the state's fleet by 2020, Kappalman said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.