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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

SPD in a Tesla? Beggs pushes for electric police vehicles

Brian Bower, left, and Shawn Tweedt, of Sign Corp., install the first of two window signs outside the new Downtown Spokane Police Precinct on Riverside Avenue at Wall Street, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs is pushing the city to begin converting the Spokane Police Department fleet from gasoline to electric vehicles, but other city officials are warning he’s moving too fast, too soon.

Beggs has been voicing frustration in recent weeks and wondering aloud why the city won’t agree to pilot the use of four electric vehicles for the police department while it builds a long-term electrification plan.

“What I’ve really been wanting to hear is how we can do it, not all the reasons why we can’t,” Beggs said Monday, after more than a year of pushing the city to embrace electric vehicles.

City officials agree that an all-electric fleet of vehicles is the inevitable path forward, but differ on how quickly to implement it and the feasibility of such a transition in the short term.

“I don’t know that the (police department) is the place to pilot an electric car,” David Payne, the city’s fleet services director, told the council.

Replacing a handful of vehicles in the police department’s fleet would typically be uncontroversial, but Beggs and the City Council have held up the purchase of four police patrol vehicles – two Ford K8 hybrids and 2 Chevy Tahoes – as they inquire about the possibility of buying Teslas instead.

The council discussed the purchase at a meeting of the Public Safety and Community Health Committee on Monday. City staff are gathering additional information requested by Beggs and are expected to present again before a potential vote next week.

“I feel like every week, I’m hearing ‘no’ … I agree that we need a whole plan, but a pilot, that’s what you do. Now is the time,” Beggs said.

Tonya Wallace, the city’s chief financial officer, committed to studying the purchase of electric vehicles, but said planning for their eventual purchase and use would take months.

“We all understand that electrification of the fleet is the direction we’re going, and we just need to roll up our sleeves and get that plan developed,” Wallace said.

On the proposed four vehicle purchases, Wallace added “for 2020, we are not quite ready.”

“But for 2021, with the (Tesla) Model Y coming out, we could definitely get ready,” Wallace said.

The expected cost over their life cycle is less than gasoline vehicles, but the upfront cost of electric vehicles tends to be higher, according to an analysis presented Monday by Nathan Groh, the city’s sustainable transportation analyst.

Beggs pointed out that the city’s cost analysis assumed that the two vehicles would have an equal lifespan – about five years and 125,000 miles – contrary to the information its own analysts had found. He argued that over time, the electric vehicles would be “substantially cheaper, because they last longer.”

“That’s a great point,” Groh replied. “All electric vehicles are going to last a lot longer than your traditional gasoline or even hybrid vehicles. On the most extreme ends, we’ve seen Teslas last over 300,000 miles without any significant maintenance challenges.”

Groh ultimately recommended that the City Council buy three hybrid SUVs and pilot the use of a single Tesla Model Y electric SUV, but warned them not to purchase four electric vehicles all at once.

“Instead, I would implement EVs in other departments in 2021 where applicable and allow the police department to get the infrastructure set up, as well as set up all the logistics for charging and using these electric vehicles,” Groh said.

Despite the advantages offered by electric vehicles, officials warn the electric cars bring challenges when it comes to patrol – chief among them, keeping the cars charged through the rigorous demands of officer use.

Payne, the fleet services director, said the police department primarily needs what it refers to as hot-seat vehicles, meaning they are used 24/7 by multiple officers on consecutive shifts, complicating the charging process.

Instead, he advocated that the city begin purchasing electric vehicles for other departments, such as cars used by the water department for meter reading.

“As the market emerges and the total cost of an electric vehicle goes down, then we’d be better able to pencil in and justify financially the cost of an electric vehicle,” Payne said.

The cars will also have to be stored in a covered parking, ideally behind a locked gate in a heated space because cold weather shortens the battery life of the vehicle.

Beggs has asked for details about how many vehicles are left unused during the quieter graveyard shifts, data that is expected to be presented next week. He said he believes that electric vehicles could be charged overnight in secure parking underneath the Spokane Transit Authority plaza.

“These Teslas, by all indication, are faster and safer, they last longer, they’re cheaper … we’re just talking about four vehicles,” Beggs said.

The city will likely need to expand the number of charging stations it owns as it buys more electric vehicles. It currently has six charging stations at a service center and one behind City Hall. If the city expects officers to charge vehicles at their homes, that would have to be negotiated with their union.

Although the projected maintenance requirements are lower, none of the city’s own technicians are trained on electric or hybrid vehicles, city officials noted. It would have to outsource all of the service on such vehicles.

Councilwoman Candace Mumm said she’s open to piloting one electric vehicle. She acknowledged that a Tesla “sounds kind of fancy,” but the cost may be warranted given the life cycle of the vehicle. She advocated that the city not only factor in the cost, but the safety benefits offered by Tesla in forging a plan.

“This makes a lot of sense to test this out,” Mumm said.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson also supported testing an electric vehicle, but sought assurances that it would actually be tested by officers in the field and not simply used for administrative errands.