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Mercer Island at cutting edge of electric highway initiative

In a project influenced by some Mercer Island residents, Washington State is to use $1.32 million in Federal Recovery Act funding to build the first border-to-border electric car-friendly highway in the country, according to an announcement made by Gov. Chris Gregoire Monday.

The plan, which is to install nine charging stations by the summer of 2011 along the Washington I-5 corridor, is to serve the estimated 300,000 electric vehicles that the Washington Department of Transportation anticipates will begin traveling state roads over the next decade.

"Washington state is a leader in creating green jobs, adopting new clean technologies and we are poised to do it again with electric wehicles," said Gregoire in a press release announcing the program.

Tonia Buell, a project manager for Washington Department of Transportation pubic-private partnerships, said this project was to complement bigger plans like the five state, $230 million EV Project, which is to deploy 15,000 charge stations and 4700 electric cars in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona and Tennessee. The Washington plan will also support the West Coast Green Highway Initiative that is designed encourage greener fuels along the I-5 corridor from British Columbia to Mexico.

"We're filling in the gaps in this charging safety net," Buell said. "The goal of the project is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and give drivers choices."

Buell said funding for the project is to come from the U.S. Commerce Department through the State Energy Program, which distributes money to states from the 2009 Recovery Act. She said the Washington Department of Transportation is trying to get an additional $650,000 in federal funds for the project, but this has yet to be approved.

Buell also said Mercer Island has had a chance to influence the program, with City Councilmember Mike Grady, chair of the group Puget Sound New Energy Solutions, working with the state to come up with ways to use funding for the electric highway project as effectively as possible.

"We've actually gone to meetings at Mercer Island City Hall," said Buelle.

Rich Conrad, Mercer Island City Manager, said the Island has also received funds from the federal stimulus program to install ten charging stations for electric cars around the island. He said the city signed a contract for the project and got the authority to start spending money on it about two weeks ago, meaning that stations could be in place by the end of the year.

The Mercer Island and Washington State charging station programs are scheduled to be ready for use when several electric car models including the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan Leaf and the Ford Focus are launched at the end of this year.

The first stations in the Washington project are to be north of Everett and south of Centralia, according to a Transportation Department press release.

Jill Simmons, the acting director of the Seattle Office of Sustainability and the Environment, said the city of Seattle was pleased to hear that this project was going to make electric cars more feasible and that the proposal aligns with city efforts to mitigate climate change.

"It's very much in line with the Seattle Climate Action Plan," she said. "There are pretty dramatic benefits from electric cars."

Even counting the carbon emissions caused by some electricity generation, Seth Preston of the Washington State Department of Ecology said a mile driven in an electric car releases about 74 percent less greenhouse gases than a mile driven in a gas-powered car.

"The transportation sector--cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, ships, heavy trucks for transportation--accounts for almost half of Washington's greenhouse gas emissions, so it's crucial to make substantial progress in reducing emissions in this sector," he said.

Though one potential environmental drawback of electric cars is disposing of their 400 pound batteries at the end of their life cycle, Preston said it is highly likely that these can be recycled and used as back-up power sources for industry. He said electric car batteries are designed to last at least ten years.

Simmons said electric cars are just one of many transportation innovations Seattle is pursuing to reduce climate impacts, but, she said, the I-5 project was significant because it would allow electric car owners to make longer trips.

Besides the electric highway project, Simmons said charging stations would begin to go in in the city of Seattle as well as part of the EV project.

Since 90 percent of car trips taken in Washington are less than 20 miles, according to the Department of Ecology, electric cars have the potential to catch on, said Simmons and Preston.

"This is a great project to start changing the perception that an all-electric vehicle will run out of electrons and be stranded," said Preston. "Electric vehicles like the Leaf, with an expected 100 mile range, can be very practical."

In terms of this program's potential to grow the state economy, Buell said that, while some jobs will be created through the installation of charging stations, the main goal of the program is to attract green jobs in the future.

"We anticipate that this project will serve as a magnet," she said. "The idea is by having this electric highway and having charging infrastructure in place, car manufacturers will move their sales here."

Ideally, she said, communities like Mercer Island would continue installing charging stations of their own as well, providing a network of stations 40 to 60 miles apart so that zero-emissions car owners can go anywhere.

For more information on the electric highway project: http://wsdot.wa.gov/Partners/GreenHighways/electric_highways.htm

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