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Originally published Sunday, March 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Governors envision eco-friendly fuels at I-5 rest stops

Gov. Chris Gregoire and her counterparts in Oregon and California are considering a plan they hope would help transform Interstate 5 from a freeway ruled by gasoline burners to a haven for eco-friendly cars and trucks.

Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire and her counterparts in Oregon and California are considering a plan they hope would help transform Interstate 5 from a freeway ruled by gasoline burners to a haven for eco-friendly cars and trucks.

The three governors envision a series of alternative fueling stations stretching from the Canadian border to Mexico, creating what has been dubbed a "green freeway."

As the plan stands, motorists eventually would be able to pull off at I-5 rest stops for more than a cup of coffee and roadside relief: They also would be able to charge, or swap out, their electric-vehicle batteries or fill their tanks with biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen or compressed natural gas.

The idea is drawing opposition from interest groups that say the state-approved stations would compete with nearby private businesses.

But supporters say services for alternative-fuel vehicles are often tough to find near the 1,382-mile interstate. If approved, the project could begin in Washington as early as this coming summer.

It would mark the first time U.S. drivers could travel a long stretch of freeway with easy access to alternative fuel.

"We originally coined it the B.C.-to-Baja green highway," said Jeff Doyle, director of public-private partnerships at the Washington State Department of Transportation. "The three states are trying to find out if we can all march forward together."

The fueling stations and battery swap-out docks would be the first businesses allowed by West Coast states to operate at rest stops, Doyle said. To help companies with their initial costs, they would not be charged rent until they started turning a profit, he said.

The move would need to clear layers of local and federal approval. Supporters say the plan would fit with the nationwide push for green jobs and alternative-energy development, and put the states in line for some of the $15 billion in federal stimulus money dedicated to energy-related programs.

Marty Brown, Gregoire's legislative liaison, said Gregoire, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski are beginning to figure out how to make the plan work. The three briefly discussed the idea last month during a meeting in Washington, D.C.

Priming investment

Doyle said he has been working with the Oregon and California transportation departments for months in developing a way to "partner with next-generation fuel providers to spur private investment."

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He said Oregon and California are not likely to start on their ends of the project as soon as Washington, which also is looking at setting up alternative-fuel stations at Park-and-Ride lots.

Separately in Olympia, Rep. Deb Eddy, D-Kirkland, is sponsoring a bill that would give businesses a sales-tax exemption to establish battery charging and exchange stations, as well as create the infrastructure to transform the state automobile fleet from gasoline to electric.

"If we expect to ever meet our state greenhouse-gas goals, we will have to tackle transportation," Eddy said.

Eddy said she is not working with Gregoire and the California and Oregon governors in her efforts, but she said she'd like charging and battery swap-out stations at rest stops by the end of 2015.

Eddy said her proposal, House Bill 1481, is likely to be voted out of the House in coming days.

Business opposition

Jim Whitty, manager of the Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding office in Oregon, said his state wants to push forward with the rest-stop fueling stations but is tied up by opposition from the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO) and national gasoline distribution groups.

NATSO contends the stations would draw potential customers from truck stops, hotels, restaurants and other businesses near rest stops.

The owner of a Eugene, Ore., company that works with I-5 tractor-trailer drivers to reduce greenhouse emissions by upgrading their vehicles, remains hopeful for the rest-stop businesses. Sharon Banks, CEO of Cascade Sierra Solutions, said the proposal would appeal to truckers who choose rest areas over truck stops as places to pull off the freeway.

In the Puget Sound region, Susan Fahnestock, who co-owns Bellevue's Green Car Co., which sells electric, plug-in hybrid and biodiesel vehicles, said the proposal is timely because numerous types of electric cars are hitting the market.

"I think people know this is coming. We have got to start somewhere," Fahnestock said.

Doyle said he's slogging through the legalities of getting the federal government to approve commercial development alongside an interstate. He said that if the plan is approved, the rest stops would not resemble some East Coast rest areas that feature fast-food restaurants and souvenir shops.

Doyle said the state wouldn't want alternative-fuel stations to disrupt rest-area traffic, so contract companies would have to provide small, low-profile setups. Doyle added that rest-stop fueling sites would be self-service and likely to have little or no on-site staffing.

There already are dozens of compressed natural gas, ethanol and biodiesel stations in Washington and Oregon, but the closest hydrogen station is at Humboldt State University in Northern California.

Company interested

Doyle said no contracts for the fuel stations have been signed. But the head of a California-based company that has electric-car service stations in Israel, and is in the midst of expanding to Hawaii, the Bay Area, Australia and Ontario, Canada, has met with Gregoire, Brown said.

The company, Better Place, is led by Shai Agassi, a former Silicon Valley software executive who has been traveling the world touting his vision of a network of electric-vehicle charging stations.

Jeff Miller, who works in global development at Better Place, said that if the company were hired it would build charging stations in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and battery switch-out stations at rest areas about every 40 miles along the I-5 corridor. Electric vehicles, he said, have a battery life of about 100 miles.

Better Place's stations are fully automated and require about five minutes to switch out a battery, which can be less time than it takes to fill up a gas tank, Miller said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 360-236-8267 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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