Brian Henderson, of Renton, plugs in his Kia Soul EV electric vehicle at a charging station in Sultan on Wednesday, June 7, 2017. Henderson and a group of fellow electric car drivers made the trip from Everett’s City Hall to Spokane’s City Hall in an effort to raise awareness about convenient charging locations along U.S. 2. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Brian Henderson, of Renton, plugs in his Kia Soul EV electric vehicle at a charging station in Sultan on Wednesday, June 7, 2017. Henderson and a group of fellow electric car drivers made the trip from Everett’s City Hall to Spokane’s City Hall in an effort to raise awareness about convenient charging locations along U.S. 2. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Editorial: Local governments ignoring law on electric cars

A 2007 law requires state agencies and local governments to buy electric cars. It isn’t happening.

By The Herald Editorial Board

State lawmakers might as well have required the cars to fly.

A new report finds that state agencies and local governments have been less than charged up in their response to a 2007 state law that requires them, “to the extent practicable,” to run the vehicles in their fleets on electricity rather than fossil fuels.

The report by Coltura — a nonprofit that supports the transition from gasoline to electric and cleaner alternatives — found that less than 6 percent of the passenger and sport-utility fleet vehicles among 31 local governments surveyed were electric. (For the purpose of the survey, hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius were counted as gas-powered vehicles, while plug-in hybrids, such as the Chevy Bolt were counted as fully electric vehicles.)

The report, “Recharge Required,” was released June 1, coinciding with the deadline set by the state law for local governments to have vehicle fleets running on electricity, biofuels or other alternative power as much as possible.

State government agencies, which were to meet the same standard by June 2015, also are not meeting the mandate with only 152 electric vehicles among the 7,191 at the five agencies surveyed. The exception is the state Department of Enterprise Services, which counts 142 electric vehicles against the 1,291 gas-powered cars it operates.

Included in the survey were Snohomish County, the city of Everett and the Edmonds School District. Everett has seven electric vehicles its fleet, compared to 288 passenger and light-duty vehicles; Snohomish County, five among a fleet of 481 such vehicles and the Edmonds School district, none among its 93 comparable vehicles.

Not part of the report were public transit buses. Everett Transit plans to put four electric buses on the road this year and five more in 2019.

Among the closest to being fully charged was the city of Seattle, with 178 electrics alongside a fleet of 1,964 similar passenger and light-duty vehicles.

Nine cities and counties in the survey have yet to buy one vehicle. And state agencies and local governments aren’t reporting their progress in electrifying their fleets, also a requirement of the 2007 law.

Part of the problem is the wiggle room in the state law allowed by the phrase, “to the extent practicable.”

But Matthew Metz, the co-executive director of Coltura and author of the report, told The Seattle Times the lagging compliance is as much about implementation as the squishiness in the state law’s wording.

“There are a lot of things we are supposed to be doing under this law that are just not happening,” Metz told The Times.

As was the case when the law was passed in 2007, electric vehicles aren’t just a feel-good trend; there are practical reasons to pursue the predominate use of electric vehicles in state and local government fleets.

Coltura’s report notes cost-savings for government, reduced carbon emissions and improved air quality, support of the state’s hydro-electric system and encouragement of an infrastructure of car-charging stations that could persuade individuals and businesses to consider electric vehicles as a viable alternative. Significant fleet purchases also bolster electric car makers, which can help to bring down the cost of the vehicles over time.

Cost alone for taxpayer-supported local governments and state agencies would seem to be reason enough to consider adding electrics to government fleets, as reflected in statistics among the cars in used by the Enterprise Services agency.

A comparison of a gas-powered Ford Focus SE to an all-electric Chevy Bolt showed that over the life of each vehicle and factoring in purchase price, taxes, cost of gasoline vs. electricity, maintenance and resale value, the Bolt was nearly $1,600 less costly than the Ford Focus. Factor in environmental costs — based on a Environmental Protection Agency formula that takes into account reduced risks to health and climate change — and the savings for each electric car over the gas-power vehicle was $2,600 in the comparison.

Interestingly, the lifetime costs of a hybrid — such as a Toyota Prius, which uses its gas engine to charge its battery — were even greater than the Focus and more than $3,100 higher than the Bolt; nearly $4,000 when counting the environmental costs.

Upfront costs, admittedly, are part of the difficulty that local governments — particularly smaller and cash-strapped municipalities — face. Electric cars are more expensive to purchse; as is the equipment for charging stations.

But the report points to ways to address those and other hurdles for electric fleets:

Better awareness of the state law among officials and the public could help develop some resolve among local and state governments to take advantage of the addition of electrics to their fleets. Only four of 31 governments, the report said, had outlined plans for acquiring more electric vehicles.

The state Department of Commerce, which is responsible for the law’s compliance hasn’t been provided the resources to follow up with governments, the report finds. And there’s no penalty in the law for governments that don’t comply.

State and federal grants could also help governments get past upfront costs for the vehicles and charging stations.

Recently, the state has provided grant money to help local governments install charging stations, and more is expected this year. And, as part of Volkswagen’s $14.7 billion settlement with the federal government over VW’s “clean diesel” scandal, Washington state expects to receive more than $112 million for which the state Department of Ecology has developed a spending plan that includes grants for electric vehicles that would replace diesel-powered vehicles.

There are specialized vehicles where electric-power technology is still in development, such as law-enforcement pursuit vehicles and heavy-duty equipment, but most local and state government fleets rely predominately on passenger and light-duty vehicles where electric vehicles would be a cost-effective and preferable choice.

It’s been more than 11 years since the Legislature passed its forward-thinking law to require state agencies and local governments to begin replacing gas-powered vehicles with electrics. Local governments and state agencies need to give the effort a jump-start with a renewed commitment to the state law.

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