A 'green highway' through Tacoma?

The City of Tacoma is joining a number of other jurisdictions along the Interstate 5 corridor to prepare for the introduction of electric vehicles this summer, according to a presentation Jan. 27 at City Hall.

“This time next year, I would realistically expect you will see [electric] vehicles driving around and being plugged into places,” said Alisa O’Hanlon, the city’s government relations coordinator. She joined Tacoma’s mobility coordinator, Diane Wiatr, in presenting an update on the plan to Tacoma City Council’s environment and public works committee. “Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest are placed very well to create an example.”

Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that requires jurisdictions along Interstates 5 and 405, and State Route 520, to plan for electric vehicle infrastructure such as standard electric plug-ins, rapid charging stations, and battery exchange stations. According to Wiatr, the Puget Sound Regional Council will begin this month to draft the regional framework and a model ordinance to be used by the region. That work is expected to be completed this fall. Until then, Tacoma is required to adopt regulations by June.

To that end, Wiatr has proposed changes to the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning code that would add a new policy to “promote the use of electric vehicles and the infrastructure necessary to support their use, modify regulations for gas stations to include rapid-charge electric vehicle stations, and modify regulations for vehicle repair facilities to include electric vehicle battery swap-out stations.”

According to O’Hanlon, federal funding has already been directed toward the effort. Fifteen-million dollars has gone to the Puget Sound Clean Cities Coalition for 450 hybrid plug-in vehicles and 90 charging stations, she said. And the U.S. Dept. of Energy will direct $100 million toward installing charging stations in Portland, Ore., San Diego, Calif., Phoenix, Ariz., Nashville, Tenn., and Seattle.

O’Hanlon added, “The common person on the street would say, ‘OK, so we’re required to put in these charging stations for these electric vehicles. Are there any indicators that we’re really going to be seeing electric vehicles?’ I’m here to say, ‘Yes.'”

The work is timed to the release of two electric vehicles this year: Nissan’s Leaf and an electric version of Ford’s Focus.

“In order for there to be a significant public interest in these cars, there needs to be a system for charging support like there is for combustion engines with gasoline,” said Wiatr in a memo to the council committee. “A combination of federal stimulus money and investment in green technology has also motivated this bill. The expectation is that the development and implementation of the electric vehicle industry will spur considerable economic growth with the added benefit of reduced carbon emissions.”

What will a system for electric vehicles in Tacoma look like? That still needs to be worked out. Some charging stations could be newly built, while others could be located at existing gas stations.

Tacoma City Councilmember Ryan Mello suggested placing these stations in locations that could spur economic development, such as near shopping districts and restaurants, or even in downtown Tacoma’s museum district. He added, “How can we capitalize on [this] in such a way that consumers choose Tacoma to charge up [their vehicles] and spend their money here?”