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County pulls plug on charging-station proposal, for now

Wednesday, March 9, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

A proposal involving an alternative to petrochemical-powered transportation lurched into a temporary ditch at Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt postponed the vote on whether to install an electric-vehicle charging station at a county-owned parking lot after two commissioners voiced their opposition.

The proposal’s controversy was somewhat belied by its relatively small price tag – only about $9,000, according to Facilities Management Department Director Roger El Khoury, who recommended the item’s adoption.

The project is part of an Austin Energy initiative called the “Plug in EVerywhere” program, which provides owners of plug-in electric vehicles with access to over 100 charging stations for a small subscription rate.

El Khoury told the court that 33 of those stations – with a total of 66 individual plugs – are within a 2-mile radius of the state Capitol. That area covers much of Central Austin, from Tarrytown in the west to Holly in the east, and from Travis Heights in the south to the area north of the University of Texas campus.

El Khoury explained, however, that there are no stations proximate to the parking lot at 910 Lavaca St., where the one in question would be installed.

That assertion caught the pique of Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who pointed out that a map in El Khoury’s presentation showed several other stations downtown. “I mean, you’ve got one that’s three blocks, and you’ve got one that’s four blocks. I guess it’s not as near as one block, but come on,” Daugherty said.

He explained that he approaches electric vehicles with skepticism because their drivers use roads that are in part funded by gas taxes.

“And unless we are going to go to a different way to fund roads, then we may be going in reverse on how we are going to take on our infrastructure,” Daugherty said. However, as a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman recently wrote, gas taxes are just one part of the transportation infrastructure pie, which also includes a fee assessed by city of Austin and paid through utility bills. Austin Energy

Commissioner Brigid Shea tried to mollify Daugherty by pointing out that grant programs could potentially cover the full cost of the station. “To me, this is one of those infrastructure investments that makes a lot of sense, and particularly since the state of Texas is trying to encourage more of these kinds of alternatives,” said Shea.

That argument failed to persuade Commissioner Margaret Gómez, who said the issue helps make the court look out of touch with her constituents. “We seem to invest a lot of money in downtown issues,” Gómez argued. “And so we need to pay more attention to the needs of people who live outside of the downtown area.”

With Commissioner Ron Davis also signaling his doubts about the station, Eckhardt invited Shea to withdraw her motion to approve the measure and give El Khoury more time to iron out the remaining wrinkles.

Shea did so but told her colleagues, “I certainly understand the concern about the cost, although $9,000, with a potential for getting that completely reimbursed, is a bargain to fund the kinds of infrastructure that will need to be put in place.”

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that gas taxes are not assessed by Austin Energy, but the city of Austin.

Photo by Karlis Dambrans, via Creative Commons

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