New 'highway' puts pedal to metal for electric cars

Charging stations span West Coast Electric Hwy.

Ore. finishes it's part of West Coast Electric Hwy

SISTERS, Ore. - According to Inside EV, sales for plug-in electric vehicles hit an all-time high in December. But EV drivers encounter one big roadblock in their electric travels -- the high-tech equivalent of a fill-up.

"Our collective dilemma when it comes to electric cars it how far you can get on one charge," said Peter Murphy, spokesman in Bend for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Unlike hybrids, EVs rely solely on charges from stations to get from Point A to Point B.

"But the whole system of where drivers want to go doesn't stop at B, they want to get to Point Z," Murphy said.

Fueled mainly by federal tax dollars, the West Coast Electric Highway was developed. It's a stretch of quick-charge stations along Interstate 5 from Washington to California.

The executive director for Drive Oregon, Jeff Allen, says it's a step in the right direction for EV drivers.

"So just like people are used to knowing if you're running low on gas, you can pull off at the next exit and fill up -- this is the same idea," Allen said.

Oregon just recently finished installing its portion of the route. For now, most of the stations are free to use, but Allen says that could change.

"Over the next 6 to 12 months, many of them will begin charging," said Allen. "There's different networks and pricing plans out there that are still being tested."

I-5 is considered the main artery of the West Coast Electric Highway. But it does branch off into some less-traveled areas.

"You had to start somewhere in the (Portland) metro, you had to start somewhere on the Interstate 5 corridor, and you have to start somewhere in Central Oregon," said Murphy.

That place was Sisters. This quick-charge station was installed about a year ago. ODOT stats show it has not had much use, but officials believe it's only a matter of time until the stations are just as mainstream as their gas counterparts.

Most electric cars can keep a charge for around 60 to 80 miles. Once the West Coast Electric Highway is complete, there will be a station every 25 to 60 miles. The quick-charge stations only take 30 minutes before drivers are good to go.

Drive Oregon and the Portland Development Commission recently commissioned a survey that found the electric vehicle industry is growing and represents about $266 million in Oregon, including the companies that make them and which serve their owners with parts and other expertise.

Portland State University's Northwest Economic Research Center conducted the $50,000 survey and found the industry at present provides 400 full-time jobs in Oregon, thanks largely to tax incentives an the state's "green sensibility."

Those are among the numbers industry officials will be telling the public and lawmakers at the state Capitol on Wednesday.

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