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From lights to EVs, Caltrans looks to reduce environmental impact

About two months ago, the California Department of Transportation kicked off a two-year project expected to help the agency curb energy costs for keeping highways lit and drivers informed though its overhead message signs.

The effort is being carried out statewide, and aims to replace most aging and energy-hungry light fixtures with more efficient LEDs, which not only consume less energy, but also have a longer lifespan. It’s one of several things Caltrans has planned to boost its focus on the environment.

Caltrans spokeswoman Cathryne Bruce-Johnson said plans include a switch to LEDs on about 60 percent of the lamps lining state highways. The LEDs, she said, use about half the energy of traditional high- and low-pressure sodium fixtures.

“That’s what we’re finding in small test areas,” Bruce-Johnson said.

Caltrans also is upgrading the bulbs in its fixed highway-message signs, which alert drivers to travel-time estimates, Amber Alerts and safety information.

Within the borders of Caltrans’ District 11, which includes San Diego and Imperial counties, there are 1,100 centerline miles of highway. Along those routes in San Diego County alone, there are more than three dozen message signs, and Caltrans estimates that each sign comes with an average of $232 in monthly energy costs.

Multiplied, the cost comes to more than $8,300 per month for District 11. The project to replace the light bulbs to LEDs is expected to reduce that total monthly cost to less than $2,000 -- an average of $48 in energy costs per sign.

Chris Schmidt, senior transportation planner for Caltrans, said the improvements will help funnel money back to Caltrans’ maintenance program, known as SHOPP, or the State Highway Operation and Protection Program.

“That’s a listing of all of the ongoing needs to maintain and operate the overall system,” Schmidt said. “That has a very, very large backlog. So that’s where we’re trying to take that funding back to.”

Schmidt, whose job is focused on multimodal transportation, explained how the agency is involved in another environment-focused project: the EV Project.

The Department of Energy-backed EV Project, named for the electric vehicle infrastructure going to 16 target cities across the country, has so far brought more than 330 publicly available electric vehicle charging stations to the county, according to a recent count. The rollout in San Diego, however, has been slower than expected; initial plans called for more than 1,000 stations to be installed by now.

Part of the reason for the slower progression, according to previous discussions with Ecotality Inc. -- the private company investing in the project and partnering with the Department of Energy -- had been the difficulty in finding charging station hosts. A few months ago, Ecotality’s Andy Hoskinson said that situation had begun to improve.

Caltrans has recently committed to be a host. The agency is about to sign an agreement for two medium-speed chargers and one fast charger at the Interstate 15 Del Lago Transit Center Park & Ride. Project partner San Diego Gas & Electric will install photovoltaic solar cells and a battery storage unit, and Ecotality will implement the charging stations’ installation.

At a recent briefing, Caltrans District 11 Director Laurie Berman said the demonstration project will help Caltrans determine how best to implement Gov. Jerry Brown’s Zero Emission Vehicle Plan.

Schmidt said teaming up with Ecotality will provide data on the infrastructure’s use, how many kilowatt-hours of energy are being used by consumers along the corridor and the feasibility of future installations.

“The I-5 is a very good example,” Schmidt said. “We have a number of other park and rides up and down that corridor, and we’re committed to figuring out how to upgrade those, essentially make those charger-ready.”

Schmidt said he is hopeful the charging station construction at Del Lago Transit Center will begin in May.

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