Mercer Islanders add expertise to state highway project

In a project influenced by some Mercer Island residents, Washington state will 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 on June 28.

The plan, which is to install nine charging stations by the summer of 2011 along the I-5 corridor, is to serve the estimated 300,000 electric vehicles that the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) 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 vehicles,” said Gregoire in a press release.

Tonia Buell, a project manager for WSDOT’s public-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 4,700 electric cars in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona and Tennessee. The Washington plan will also support the West Coast Green Highway Initiative that is designed to 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 said Mercer Island has influenced 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.

Grady said he had been working with the state and with local governments to plan charging stations, buy electric vehicles and get the necessary funding to do so.

He said he helped Mercer Island get a grant from the Department of Energy for about $135,000 to build 10 charging stations around the Island. City Manager Rich Conrad said the 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 I-5 project are to be north of Everett and south of Centralia, according to a transportation department press release.

Jill Simmons 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 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 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 these can probably be recycled and used as back-up power sources for industry. He said electric car batteries are designed to last at least 10 years.

Besides the electric highway project, Simmons said charging stations would begin to go in within the city of Seattle, and thanks to EV Project grants.

Since 90 percent of car trips taken in Washington are less than 20 miles, according to Ecology Department officials, 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.

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