FutureStructure

Eleven Years After Bill, City Fleets in Washington State are Nowhere Near Abandoning Gas-Powered Vehicles

Seattle has the most alternative-fuel vehicles in its municipal fleet. But its fleet is supposed to be 100 percent alternative.

by Nicholas Deshais, The Spokesman-Review / June 4, 2018
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(TNS) — How time flies.

In 2007, Washington state Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a law that said cities, counties and other local governments and entities had to switch their vehicle fleets to run solely on electricity or biofuel by June 2018.

That’s right now.

But 11 years after she signed the law, which went into effect in 2015, the city of Spokane has 1,086 vehicles, including firetrucks, garbage trucks, patrol cars and pool vehicles, and exactly one of them is electric: a Nissan Leaf purchased during the tenure of Mayor Mary Verner.

Math tells us that about one-tenth of 1 percent of the fleet meets the letter of the law. Or in other words, statistically insignificant.

Compared to Seattle’s 178 electric vehicles, Spokane’s lagging. But compared to every other local jurisdiction, Spokane’s doing great. Spokane County, Eastern Washington University and Washington State University have zero, according to a report released Friday by Coltura, a Seattle-based group with the goal to “spur adoption of clean, zero-emission vehicles, and phase out sales of new gasoline vehicles by 2030.”

Spokane Transit Authority and Spokane Public Schools were not included in the report, and didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

Maybe it was the part of the law that had its teeth extracted, which said the switch should be done “to the extent practicable,” that has kept the numbers low. Or maybe there’s more to the numbers that the Coltura report doesn’t mention.

The city, for instance, does only have one electric vehicle, it’s true. But it also has seven hybrids, which run interchangeably on gas and electricity. And it has 32 garbage trucks that run on compressed natural gas, which creates less pollution and is more efficient than fossil fuels. The city anticipates the entire 100-strong fleet of garbage trucks will run on CNG by 2023.

Marlene Feist, the director of strategic development for the city’s public works and utilities department, said the city is working to make the fleet as “fuel efficient as possible” and continues to “integrate alternate fuel vehicles to meet state law.” But she pointed out another roadblock when attempting to convert a city’s fleet.

“Our fleet is largely large industrial vehicles,” she said. “We used to have more of a passenger car fleet. We used to have a bunch of pool cars. We don’t anymore.”

That may be the case, but other Washington cities show more progress in fleet electrification than Spokane. Seattle’s 178 vehicles, out of a total of 3,410, leads the pack by far. By very far. It is Seattle after all. As the report says, Washington’s largest city has “the most advanced vehicle electrification program of any city in Washington. Seattle presently has 92 pure EVs and 86 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. It recently completed an installation of 156 charging units, and now has 289 serving its fleet, with 400 planned by 2023.”

Gulp.

Tacoma, which has a similarly-sized fleet as Spokane, and Everett, which has a much smaller fleet, each have seven electric vehicles. Bellevue has four, Vancouver has three and Kirkland has two. Renton and Bellingham tie with Spokane at one.

Feist said the city has 205 light-duty vehicles that “potentially could be candidates for conversion to electricity or other alternate fuels, depending on how we use them.” She noted that since the law went into effect in 2015, the city has had no need to replace any of these vehicles, which usually occurs at the end of a vehicle’s lifespan.

She said the city is considering buying an all-electric vehicle called a Polaris GEM, which looks like a hefty golf cart, for parking enforcement.

The city also has a law on the books from 2015 that states “each vehicle purchased by the City shall be as fuel efficient or more fuel efficient as the vehicle it is replacing in the City fleet.” Electric vehicles count.

The Coltura report, which is focused on environmentalism, largely avoids criticizing the lack of municipal action. Instead, it takes aim at the law, which was supposed to cut back on public fuel use.

It calls the law “so vague that it provides no effective guidance to agencies, and no clear basis for holding them accountable for their decisions. If, for example, an agency has not invested in charging facilities, a vehicle that requires charging would arguably ‘not meet operational needs.’ There is no guidance for calculating the lifecycle cost of the vehicle, nor how operational needs are to be determined.”

And as Feist suggested, vehicles that run on natural gas count under the law, which includes “an allowance for substitution of natural gas and propane for electricity or biodiesel not authorized within the statute.” The report acknowledges the allowance, but didn’t count the CNG vehicles.

The report shows what’s at stake. Vehicle emissions are the largest source of air pollution, and more than 40 percent of all carbon emissions in Washington state came from tailpipes. In 2016, Seattle burned through more than 2.2 million gallons of gas while Spokane combusted 902,000 gallons.

©2018 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.