Specialty plates to stay on North Carolina highways

The iconic black bear, the parkway’s winding scenic road and the Appalachian Trail’s solitary hiker have gotten a reprieve.

A bill will be introduced next month to allow a version of the full-color specialty plates. They’d been facing a death sentence under a law introduced last year that sought plate uniformity in North Carolina.

“This is encouraging news,” said Holly Demuth, director in North Carolina for Friends of the Smokies.

The specialty black bear plate has raised $2.5 million for Friends of the Smokies. One of the most popular, there is about 20,000 of the Smokies plates on North Carolina’s roads. There are 216 specialty plates total, running the gamut from an elk plate that supports the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to a coastal plate supporting, you guessed it, coastal protection.

Gutting the colorful specialty license plates had caused a hue and cry across the state.

Demuth wasn’t prepared to sing a victory song yet, however.

“It takes some undoing to undo a law,” she said. “We still have our work cut out for us. We need a hero. Quite bluntly, we need a Republican hero.”

That hero looks to be Rep. Phillip Frye, R-Mitchell, who said that he or fellow legislator Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, expect to introduce legislation that would allow the colorful plates to continue.

A new state law, passed last year at Gillespie’s behest, would have eliminated the full-color designs for specialty plates. Instead, starting in 2015 specialty plates would feature only tiny logos shoehorned into one small corner of the plate. Gillespie sought the stiffer restrictions because, as he said at the time, law enforcement officers could not easily see the license number and that presented safety issues.

That assertion was not backed up by anything but anecdotal evidence, prompting a safety study by the N.C. Department of Transportation. The study found that any possible visibility issues — colored backgrounds allegedly interfered with the legibility of numbers — could be solved if the license numbers were backed by a white background. The rest of the plate’s design could stay in tact.

That new design — a full color plate but with a white rectangle superimposed on top — is what Frye based his bill on.

The new law as proposed by Frye and approved recently by the Joint Transportation Oversight Committee would repeal the ban on the unique color background for specialty license plates. It was unanimously approved.

The proposed change follows a report issued Friday supporting the white block as a standardized format. The recommendation has the support of the state Department of Transportation, the Department of Public Safety, the state Highway Patrol, the N.C. Sheriffs Association and more.

“We feel like this is a workable situation,” Frye said of the new proposed rules. “It’s a good compromise, and everyone seems to be on board.”

Also good news, those with old plates will be grandfathered in. Under the original bill, owners of the old plates would have had to turn them in to the Department of Motor Vehicles and been issued a new one.

There are currently 91,311 full-color specialty license plates on the roads right now. The estimated cost of replacing all of these plates by July 1, 2015 was set at more than $164,000, according to the report, with each plate costing $1.75 to produce.

Other organizations that make money off the colorful specialty license plates, like the Friends of the Smokies, were breathing sighs of relief last week.

The specialty license plates cost motorists an extra fee of $30 per year. Of the fee, $20 goes directly to the groups involved.

“I think everyone sees the overall importance of the program and have been expressing that concern,” said Carolyn Ward, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. “This is a fairly significant piece of revenue.”

With about 27,000 plates on the road the Parkway Foundation has raised more than $2.9 million since 2004.

During that same time, the foundation’s specialty plate has kicked in $1.7 million into state coffers, Ward noted. This is because $10 of the $20 fee goes into the state’s Special Registration Plate Account, which supports the following: issues and handling of special plates, N.C. State Visitors Centers, travel and tourism advertising, highway beautification and travel accessibility for disabled people.

Here’s what that means in real numbers last year:

• $82,300 went to highway beautification.

• $54,318 went to the Department of Commerce for out-of-state tourism and industrial development promotion.

• $27,982 went to the Department of Health and Human Services to promote travel accessibility for disabled persons.

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