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Charging Stations Must Become Easier to Find in Illinois, IDOT Secretary Says

AP file photo/David Zalubowski
In this Dec. 21, 2020 file photo, a Chevrolet Bolt charges at an Electrify America site outside Colorado Mills outlet mall in downtown Lakewood, Colo.

Governor J.B. Pritzker is setting an ambitious goal to get 750,000 electric vehicles on Illinois roadways by 2030. To make that happen, state transportation secretary Omer Osman says a massive build-out of charging stations is needed - and fast.

"That demand must be met if we want to go the EV route. Across the state and then across the nation - we have to provide that infrastructure," Osman said during a recent interview with WCBU.

Osman said the federal infrastructure bill will play a big role in making that happen. The Senate version of the package sets aside $7.5 billion for just that purpose.

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali has made electric vehicles a crux of her "Smart Cities" platform, which she described to media earlier this month.

"I don't own one yet, but I plan to, hope to," she said. "Electric vehicles, they're good for the environment. We need to get more cars off the road, especially those that are polluting the environment with carbon emissions." But electric vehicles are vehicles of the future. And they're a smart way to drive."

Charging stations can be hard to come by now. IDOT is installing blue "Alternative Fuel Corridor" signs along Interstates 39, 55, 70, 74, 80, 90, and 94 to direct motorists to the nearest charging stations during longer trips. But Osman said he ultimately hopes an electric vehicle charging port becomes as easy to locate as a gas pump.

"What I foresee is this: that along each and every fuel pump station, you're going to see several charging stations," Osman said.

The secretary said that idea already has buy-in from gas station business associations who want to capitalize on the growing EV market.

"From their perspective, somebody showing up trying to charge their electric car at a gas station, they have a captive audience. And that means there's more sales," Osman said. "There's almost always a tendency to buy something from a gas station while you're waiting on your car to be charged."

The Peoria area currently has a smattering of EV charging stations at college campuses and select businesses like car dealerships and HyVee grocery stores, but they are relatively uncommon. Ali said she's hopeful will benefit from federal infrastructure dollars to start building out EV charging capacity.

"Electric vehicles can only go so far without being charged. And we need to have more of an infrastructure here to be able to support those electric vehicles," she said.

Ali notes the Peoria area may see more EV hitting the streets when Rivian, about 40 miles away in Normal, begins churning out mass-produced vehicles. She also hinted other companies working in the electric vehicle realm may have at least a passing interest in putting down some roots in Peoria.

"Smart cities require an investment in technology, and infrastructure using technology. And so we need the infrastructure in order to really push for more electric vehicles, not just for individuals, but for corporate fleets, as well," she said.

The Peoria area is also serving as a testing ground for other high-tech transportation development, such as AutonomouStuff's trials in downtown Peoria in 2019 or the ongoing efforts to create the Central Illinois Living Laboratory as an integral part of Distillery Labs, Peoria's branch of the Illinois Innovation Network.

Osman said IDOT and other departments of transportation across the nation are bracing for the transformations that innovations like autonomous vehicles or platooning could necessitate for today's infrastructure. But he said the coordination needs to come from the federal level.

"We cannot afford to have 50 states with 50 different regulations. It is not going to work. So the way we are working together, we are actually working with the U of I. There's quite a bit of research that's going on that we support, and Federal Highway Administration supports, regarding platooning, in particular, so all that fits into one place," Osman said. "That must be handled at a national level. It cannot be an IDOT issue or a one particular state issue."

Tim Shelley is the Assignment Editor and Digital Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.