WATERTOWN — A statewide survey kicked off this week to choose a new state license plate has sparked immediate criticism from residents over both a design lacking Northern New York elements, and how the state intends to charge for the forced replacement program.

The state Department of Transportation and Gov. Andrew Cuomo say the contest to replace the current gold and blue design will “ensure all New York license plates on the roadways are reflective and easy to read.”

It comes a decade after the state required drivers to shell out $25 for new plates. And like then, the new plan — which also comes with a $25 fee along with registration renewal cost and an additional $20 fee if you want to keep the same plate numbers — is being criticized. In a state with 3 million registered vehicles, replacing all drivers plates could net $75 million for state coffers.

Readers commenting on a Facebook link for a NNY360/Watertown Daily Times story on the announcement of the plate program posted such comments as, “They just want a reason to take more money from us.”

Politicians are also getting involved.

In 2009, when now State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, was St. Lawrence County clerk, she launched an online petition signed by people from across the state that opposed the new license plate program of that year. She explained that the fees were especially unfair to rural residents, who depend on vehicles for their livelihoods, unlike urban areas like New York City, where mass transit is available.

Now, Sen. Ritchie is encouraging state motorists to sign her new petition, available at her website, that calls for the state to drop its new plan.

Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown, has also noted his opposition.

“I view this as one more scheme to inequitably tax upstate,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “We’ve seen this idea floated before and it hasn’t gotten better with time. Soaking taxpayers by requiring them to buy new license plates isn’t the answer to a clean balance sheet.”

Over the next two years, those with license plates that are 10 years old or older will be issued new plates.

Replacing aging plates, the governor’s office says, will eliminate legibility issues that hinder license plate readers, which are used by law enforcement, red light cameras and cashless tolling systems, from correctly identifying the registered vehicle owner.

“While I understand the need to replace peeling plates, as well as to ensure that plates can be read by automated tool booths and law enforcement, I strongly disagree with asking New Yorkers to open their wallets and pay yet another unnecessary fee,” Sen. Ritchie said in a news release.

Tim O’Brien, assistant director of public information for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, defended the new license plate program.

“The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators recommends a license plate replacement cycle and that it not exceed 10 years,” Mr. O’Brien said in written response to emailed questions. “Also, per industry best practices, license plate reader technology is best used with light background and dark lettering.”

More than 3 million vehicles in the state have plates that are 10 years old or older, the governor’s office says, adding, “Because of their age, many of them are damaged, oxidized and peeling, making it difficult or impossible to read the license plate number. Having a license plate that is legible reduces a motorist’s risk of being pulled over and cited for having an illegible license plate.”

The new plates will replace the Empire blue and white plates, issued from 2001 to 2010. Ones issued after that are blue and gold.

The five designs up for voting were also criticized by some Times’ readers, who would have liked to have seen more options. The only “upstate” scene is one of Niagara Falls, which is part of a state skyline design.

“I want more colors honestly. Like Hawaii. We have beautiful skies!” one reader posted.

“How about some other area other than NYC?” another wrote. “New York is a whole lot more to offer than that.”

And another: “Should be a fish on the plate.”

Asked about the designs, Mr. O’Brien told the Times, “The designs presented for public vote reflect a number of iconic symbols across New York State ... All of the options represent the spirit of New York State. The Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge is the latest example of New York’s renewed commitment to infrastructure and the determination to conceive of big projects and then get them done. The Statue of Liberty is an iconic image beloved by all New Yorkers and was featured on the New York State license plate from 1986 to 2001.”

The state began to issue plates with annual vehicle licensing in 1910. According to Times’ files, Albert S. Callan, a 23-year-old freshman Republican assemblyman from Cortland, suggested it. It ended his political career.

“The idea of licensing vehicles every year brought disfavor of the car owners,” Mr. Callan said on the 50th anniversary of the law in 1960. “As a matter of fact, it cost me re-election after it went into effect.”

The state’s license plates are made by prisoners and civilian staff at Auburn Correctional Facility.

A state Department of Corrections and Community spokesman said that license plate manufacturing at the prison began in 1923, with about 2 million manufactured annually on behalf of the DMV.

The license plate plant operates year-round.

“The production process itself will not be changing, however DOCCS has signed a contract with a new vendor Avery Dennison who will be supplying the sheeting for the new plates. DOCCS and all its vendors continually review and evaluate all of its programs for quality and effectiveness,” Thomas Mailey of the DOCCS said.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

Features writer

Multiple award-winning writer of life in the north country

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(2) comments

BenG

Interesting that one potential new plate would have the bridge on it that King Andrew named after his father, a move that most residents in New York opposed. Personally I think they should replace "Excelsior" with "BIRTH PLACE OF DONALD J TRUMP." Now there would be a great State motto!

Holmes

Just a money grab. Another reason why I regimo cars in another state.

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