City Council to vote on $2.6M electric fleet vehicle contract

Tacoma City Council postponed a decision Tuesday to approve a $2.6 million contract that could add as many as 21 electric and hybrid vehicles to its fleet. The purchase resolution before the council, which will be re-visited next week, would award the contract to Columbia Ford Lincoln Mercury Nissan in Longview, Wash., in order to purchase up to 10 2011 Nissan Leaf electric vehicles, 11 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid vehicles, and 70 2011 Ford Crown Victoria Police Intercept vehicles.

In a Dec. 22, 2010 memo to the city’s board of contracts and awards, Public Works Director Richard E. McKinley noted the Nissan Leaf automobiles would replace outdated city parking management vehicles, add additional vehicles to the city’s motor pool fleet, and add two vehicles for staff at the Center for Urban Waters facility. The Ford Fusion hybrid automobiles would replace less fuel efficient and out-dated fleet vehicles already scheduled to be replaced. And the Ford Crown Victoria automobiles would replace wrecked patrol vehicles and vehicles no longer feasible to maintain. A grant from the Environmental Protection Agency will provide charging stations at City Hall, Center for Urban Waters, and the city’s fleet vehicle parking garage.

At issue during the meeting this week was the criteria to replace existing fleet vehicles. According to fleet services manager Frederick Chun, the lifecycle of city vehicles is based on the costs of maintenance and number of miles driven. Typically, a fleet vehicle lasts 11 years, and a police car lasts eight years or 100,000 miles. “Ninety-nine per cent of the city vehicles are purpose-built, function-specific,” Chun explained. “It is heavily used every day with lots of miles, lots of idling time.” As an example, he pointed to the condition of several police cars. “We’ve deferred replacement of our police cars for about a year or two. So these vehicles are in dire need of replacement at this time.”

But Councilmember Ryan Mello joined several of his colleagues when he asked whether replacing fleet vehicles based on the eight-year or 11-year standards made sense regardless of the vehicle’s mileage or age. “A car that hits 100,000 miles today is very different than a car that hit 100,000 miles 10 years ago,” said Councilmember Mello. “Manufacturers are building better, more long-lasting vehicles. Are we able to stretch taxpayer dollars longer because of better technology, because of better manufacturing? That’s the thing I’ve been wrestling with since seeing the purchase resolution on our agenda.”

Another concern for some councilmembers was spending $330,000 on 10 Nissan Leaf electric vehicles instead of Toyota Prius hybrid vehicles, which are approximately $7,000 cheaper — and thus would save the city $70,000. “I can appreciate where we want to be a leader and we want to set an example, but I’m having trouble seeing a $7,000 difference between a Leaf and a Prius,” said Councilmember Joe Lonergan. “It’s a difficult pill to swallow, especially at this time in our finances.”

But Councilmember Jake Fey argued that moving toward all-electric vehicles like the Leaf and away from electric-gas hybrid vehicles like the Prius could pay off in the long-term. “Seven-thousand dollars may seem like quite a bit at this point in time,” he said. “But we’re very dependent upon petroleum prices and those costs, and people are talking these days about $4- and $5-per-gallon gasoline being just around the corner. So I would like to see an analysis that shows some assumptions with increasing petroleum costs versus very modest increases in electricity costs.”

City Council is scheduled to take up the issue again and vote on the purchase resolution during its meeting Tues., Jan. 25 at 5 p.m. in the City Council Chambers, first floor, Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St.

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