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

Spokane City Council on electric cars: if you buy them, charging stations will follow

A Tesla is plugged into a recharging station on the Eastern Washington University campus on Feb. 17 in Cheney. Avista is matching a $2.5 million grant to SRTC for electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the Spokane region.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

It’s a new car but the same old debate.

When presented with a proposal Monday to lease more than a dozen new hybrid vehicles for city workers, the Spokane City Council implored officials in City Hall to embrace electric vehicles instead.

The conversation mirrored the debate the council had last year when it insisted the Spokane Police Department pilot the use of electric Tesla vehicles, over the objections of city officials who cautioned that the infrastructure to charge them doesn’t yet exist in Spokane.

“I’m a little frustrated by this logic, because it seems circular to me. We can get the charging stations, we just have to order the vehicles,” Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said Monday during an Urban Experience Committee meeting.

The city is hoping to buy more than a dozen Toyota RAV-4 Hybrid SUV’s for its code, building, and parking enforcement officers.

Ten vehicles – one Toyota Tacoma truck and nine RAV-4 hybrids – would replace aging vehicles in the city’s fleet. The remaining 10 hybrids would be driven by city personnel who are currently relying on their personal vehicles for city business.

Despite the increased fuel efficiency of the hybrid RAV-4 over vehicles currently in its fleet, council members want bigger gains, in both miles per gallon and maintenance savings. They gave no hint they’d endorse the city plan on Monday.

The main hurdle, city officials say, is the lack of charging stations that would keep battery-powered vehicles on the road.

“At this moment in time, we don’t have the charging capabilities for the electric vehicles, which is why it was decided to lease the next best option … a very fuel-efficient hybrid vehicle that still meets the operational needs of the department,” said Nathan Groh, the city’s sustainable transportation analyst.

Kinnear replied that Avista Corp. already has pledged to quickly build the necessary charging infrastructure to support more electric vehicles.

“If we’re saying we need the charging stations first, then we’re never going to get there,” Kinnear said. “Avista will, as soon as we purchase or lease, they’ll start putting in charging stations.”

Tonya Wallace, the city’s chief financial officer, said city officials plan to meet with Avista in April to assess how many charging stations might be needed to support electric vehicles.

State law requires the city to purchase the electric option if it’s cheaper and reasonably comparable in capability to a hybrid or gasoline-powered vehicle.

But it’s unclear if the cost of building electric car charging infrastructure should be included in comparisons between an electric vehicle and its gas-powered counterpart, Groh said.

Council President Breean Beggs believes the price of charging infrastructure is almost negligible. Spokane was one of several local communities to sign onto a $2.5 million grant won by the Spokane Regional Transportation Council to fund electric vehicle infrastructure. That grant was matched with another $2.5 million commitment by Avista.

Plus, Beggs argues, the charging infrastructure is only a one-time cost.

“These particular charging stations are coming to us at low or no cost, so I don’t know that it particularly matters,” Beggs said.

Not including the cost of building charging stations, the city’s 10-year analysis found a Nissan Leaf would have a slightly lower cost than the RAV-4 – although the RAV-4 offers more cargo space and all-wheel drive.

Either way, the city plans to lease the new vehicles through the Enterprise Fleet Management program, which it also employed when obtaining new vehicles for the Parks Department.

Leasing provides the city flexibility as it works to transition to more fuel efficient vehicles, Wallace noted. It also keeps the fleet’s average age lower, which reduces maintenance costs and ensures city staff are driving vehicles with the most up-to-date safety features.

Although it’s based on a five-year lease, the program with Enterprise allows the city to annually reassess and turn it in if the car’s resale value is greater than the amount owed on the lease.

“If we can turn vehicles over if it’s right for the market – and in today’s market, certain vehicles, this is just a smart decision – our overall maintenance of these vehicles is going to go down pretty dramatically,” Wallace said.

Councilman Michael Cathcart raised concerns about the cost of the proposed lease, which is about $500 per month for the RAV-4 Hybrid. He noted that Toyota’s website appears to offer a lower price to a typical consumer.