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Transportation: From plugs to communications, Missoula planners eye electric future

Missoula Electric Car Charging
Posted at 2:30 PM, Jul 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-19 16:30:02-04

MISSOULA — When Sen. Jon Tester was in Missoula this month to promote his pending infrastructure bill, he mentioned the nation’s dated power grid and a future it may not be ready to handle.

“We’re going to be shifting to electric cars,” Tester said. “It’s the way it’s going to be. We have to have a grid that’s going to support charging stations.”

According to the International Energy Agency, the car market in the U.S. declined 23% in 2020, though the registration of electric vehicles fell less than the overall market. Nearly 300,000 electric vehicles were registered last year, and their share of overall sales increased 2%.

Some analysts believe that 2021 will mark the year electric vehicles gain traction in the market, largely due to more affordable models and a wider range of options. Within the next decade, electric vehicles are likely to represent nearly 25% of all new vehicles.

While the future may be slow in arriving, it’s certainly on its way. As sure as the Model-T replaced the horse and buggy more than a century ago, quiet running and cleaner electric motors will eventually replace the internal combustible engine.

“Right now, if I had an electric vehicle, I’d struggle to visit my family in Havre,” said Missoula City Council member Jordan Hess. “I’d have to unplug my grandma’s dryer to charge the vehicle. Charging options have to be more widespread. Some of the infrastructure bill, as far as connecting the dots, will be important.”

While charging stations are still hard to come by in Missoula, the city in 2017 added two charging stations to the new parking garage in downtown Missoula. Back then, half of the nearly 500 electric vehicles in Montana were registered in Missoula.

But the number of electric vehicles registered in Montana by the end of last year had doubled to 940, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Those heading Missoula’s transportation system, from transit to infrastructure, aren’t dismissing the arrival of the electric vehicle.

Jeremy Keene, director of Missoula’s Department of Public Works and Mobility, said identifying the right-of-way needed to accommodate future technology is an important step. That that includes charging stations, utilities and other infrastructure.

“What I’m really looking at, as we do projects, is where do those things go,” Keene said. “How do we preserve a corridor for communications utilities and power utilities. We’re working with NorthWestern energy on where they go in our right of way. We want to make sure that stuff is accommodated.”

Global car sales are expected to grow, though the rate will slow and eventually start a slow decline. Technology experts believe the drop will be driven by new mobility services such as car-sharing and e-hailing.

Missoula International Airport last month took a step in that direction by approving a contract with Turo, one of the nation’s largest car-sharing companies. Through an app or online, customers can book a car with Turo on specific dates and times, and from specific airports and other locations. The vehicle’s host will then deliver the car to the renter. From there, it’s theirs to use as per their contract with the host.

Aside from car-sharing, autonomous technology could also take a bite out of the evening rush. That will require stronger connectivity, and it could allow passengers to tap into new media services during their commute.

But fully electrifying Missoula’s public transit system is also key, and it’s likely to happen sooner than many other technological changes, Hess said. Over the past few years, Mountain Line has introduced 12 electric vehicles to its fleet and will use an additional $3.6 million received from a federal grant in June to add more electric buses.

“Electrifying vehicles won’t solve some of our problems. There’s still emissions and still congestion,” Hess said. “The electrification of transit is a good way to transport a lot of people efficiently and really reduce our impact and support good urban design. With that said, we still need to electrify the rest of the vehicle fleet as well.”

While future technologies may be too far off to influence a new infrastructure bill, Hess said he’s confident new legislation will continue to grow public transit. For now, at least, it’s the most efficient and cost-effective way to address congestion on city streets.

“The transportation bill has traditionally contained a transit component,” Hess said. “Mountain Line is in desperate need of a new facility. It’s an underpinning of their plans for service expansion, being able to have an adequate facility. That’s a huge piece of it. I’ve been encouraged by how transit has been included.”