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Why VW windfall is a rare chance for Sacramento, UC Davis

It’s not every day that $44 million falls into a city’s lap. So Sacramento must make sure it gets the most out of the windfall from the Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement.

City Hall appears to be on the right track – to make electric vehicles more widely available, but also to use the money as a catalyst to create high-tech jobs.

Between now and 2020, a big chunk of the cash will go to zero-emission vehicles and 50 charging stations for car sharing and 25 for delivery fleets. The city wants to expand car sharing to help poorer residents who can’t afford electric cars or easily get to public transit. That’s important to become a greener, less polluted city, and a fairer one.

But Mayor Darrell Steinberg also proposes leveraging some of the money to attract private investment and to make Sacramento an advanced vehicle technology hub.

Refreshingly, Steinberg’s ambition and sophistication are matched by new UC Davis Chancellor Gary May. While he and Steinberg haven’t talked specifically about the VW money, May says he wants the university to be more engaged in Sacramento as an economic partner.

He wants to pursue a “transformative” innovation hub, perhaps similar to Technology Square, developed to boost a poor area of Atlanta by the city, corporations and Georgia Tech, where May was dean of engineering. Steinberg went to Atlanta earlier this year to meet May and tour Technology Square.

“The mayor and I are on the same page,” May told The Bee’s editorial board on Thursday.

Steinberg is already working with Rep. Doris Matsui and Kings managing partner Vivek Ranadive to make Sacramento a national center for testing driverless vehicles.

The city beat out Los Angeles as the first “Green City” designated by VW as part of its deal with the California Air Resources Board. Volkswagen, through a new subsidiary called Electrify America, wanted a venue that needed to improve air quality and where electric vehicles could help disadvantaged neighborhoods. Sacramento hit the mark on both counts.

After pleading guilty to planting software in its diesel vehicles to cheat on emissions tests, the automaker agreed to buy back or fix cars and pay civil penalties. That includes a $2 billion program to promote ZEVs across the country, including $800 million in California – a boost toward reaching Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of having 1.5 million of them on the road by 2025.

While what VW did was a disgrace, it has handed Sacramento a rare opportunity that mustn’t be squandered. Kudos to the city for thinking big.

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