Take me to electric avenue: States bid for EV-friendly highways

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Federal Highway Administration wants to make the lives of electric vehicle drivers easier.

The agency is ready to designate certain interstate highways as corridors for alternative fuel charging infrastructure, including electricity, hydrogen, propane and natural gas. Along with bragging rights, the highways would receive official signage, similar to those for handicapped parking, as well as help finding the best sites for charging stations.

States from Maryland to California are clamoring for the designation in nominations sent in before the deadline yesterday.

“You need to prove to people you can drive from point A to B,” said Pasquale Romano, the CEO of ChargePoint Inc., an EV charging infrastructure company. “The last problem that we don’t have an answer to is highway connectivity between metro areas. … Unsupported private investment isn’t going to populate it entirely.”

The new program represents a subtle shift for the Department of Transportation, which has left most research, development and promotion of alternative or zero-emissions vehicles to traditionally environmentally friendly agencies like the Department of Energy or U.S. EPA. A spokesman said that alternative fuel vehicles represent a new reality on the country’s roads that the administration could no longer ignore.

The state nominations represent the first step in a package of EV initiatives unveiled by the White House in July. The private-public and interagency partnerships announced then were meant to “[accelerate] the deployment of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and [put] more electric vehicles on the road.”

The corridor designation program was set up by the five-year transportation funding bill passed by Congress late last year. There is no funding involved, but the agency would play a coordinating role. Among the criteria it is using to evaluate the different highway proposals is their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A spokesman for the agency said it is working on a design for the signs now.

“It’s all about branding and acceptance,” said Ashley Horvat, vice president of strategic initiatives at PlugShare, an EV charging infrastructure company. She previously helped set up the West Coast Electric Highway with Oregon’s Department of Transportation, a task that included securing permission for signs that took many years. “People who don’t drive EVs see it, and it makes it a part of the normal transportation landscape,” she said.

The state transportation departments and EV proponents who responded to the agency said they did so to raise public awareness about zero-emissions vehicle charging infrastructure. Maryland nominated Interstate 95, U.S. 50, I-270 and I-70/I-68. North Carolina nominated I-85 and I-40, citing projected increased traffic and existing alternative fuel infrastructure. California nominated I-5, I-8, I-15 and state Route 904. Other states, like those in the Pacific Northwest, collaborated to find the most convenient highways.

The EV charging industry met Friday in Washington, D.C., with federal representatives to follow up on the July announcement.

“As we’re getting close to election season, everyone’s just thinking of doing everything they can now,” said Horvat, who was at the meeting.

The private sector now has access to $4.5 billion in loan guarantees for the “commercial-scale deployment of innovative electric vehicle charging facilities.” Republicans have slammed the federal government’s loan guarantees to clean vehicle and energy companies in the past.

A spokesman for FHWA also said it was looking into allowing EV charging stations in the empty spaces next to highways usually reserved as a right of way in an upcoming guidance or a rule.