(Jennifer Kundrach/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

After more than a year of preparation, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is ready to begin receiving proposals to build about 150 electric vehicle charging stations across the state.

Beginning March 27, the department will accept applications for the first round of charging stations using funds available under the Biden administration’s infrastructure program. PennDOT expects to receive proposals for 40 to 50 charging stations to fill gaps along interstate highways, and a portion of Route 30 in central Pennsylvania, the primary corridors identified by the state that must have stations available every 50 miles along the roadway or within 1 mile of an exit.

Once those gaps are filled, additional stations can be installed in low-income communities, busy locations or rural areas that aren’t part of the required network.

The state has $171.5 million available over the next five years as part of President Joe Biden’s plan to build 500,000 new stations across the country, and encourage electric vehicles to have at least half of the sales market by 2030.

“I would just say from the number of questions we’ve had and the number of [bid packets] we’ve handed out, there’s a lot of interest,” said Colton Brown, who oversees alternative fuel programs for PennDOT. “There are definitely a lot of companies and groups that are at least looking at this.”

Initially, the station locations will be limited by the 50-mile spacing requirement on major roads, but there are few restrictions on who can host the charging stations. Developers could be a private company or group of companies working together, civic groups or community organizations that could operate one or more sites.

The sites themselves must be fast-charging facilities that can charge all vehicles. PennDOT has identified 27 gaps that need to be filled on 15 interstate highways and Route 30 that are designated as alternative fuel corridors.

The goal is to make it easier for electric-vehicle owners to take longer trips without worrying about losing power in an area with no charging stations.

Right now, many of the state’s 900 charging sites are operated by private companies that offer fast- or slow-charging facilities and charge various rates. PennDOT is working with utilities statewide to establish nearly uniform rates at the new stations.

One of the applicants could be the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. The turnpike is one of the alternative fuel corridors, and the agency is working with plaza operator Applegreen on a program to develop as many as 80 chargers at 17 food and fuel plazas.

“We’re going to be making an application, as well,” CEO Mark Compton said after a state Senate Transportation Committee meeting earlier this month. “We want to expand the charging program.”

The toll-road system currently has 13 charging stations operated by Blink that can charge any vehicle, and 48 operated by Tesla that have limited use for Tesla and other high-end electric vehicles.

The turnpike is working with the University of Pittsburgh to develop a road surface that includes components that can charge vehicles as they drive on it. It will conduct a pilot project as part of the construction that begins this month of the Mon-Fayette Expressway extension from Jefferson Hills to Duquesne.

“The goal is to get [the gaps] done first,” said Natasha Fackler, PennDOT’s infrastructure implementation coordinator. “Once they are built out, then the department can encourage developers to put stations in other locations.”

Fackler said PennDOT is likely to seek another round of proposals later this year. By the time the program finishes, the department expects to have about 150 new stations. 

Besides the five-year allocation, the federal Department of Transportation has $2.5 billion available through competitive grants for charging stations. The department started the first round of applications for those grants last week.

That program is for individual communities and regional groups such as the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission to install charging stations; job training for station installation and maintenance; installation and operating funds for stations in low-demand or disadvantaged areas; and grants for public transit agencies. Projects that include minority- and women-owned businesses will get preference.

West Mifflin recently celebrated the opening of six charging stations at its borough building for a growing fleet of electric vehicles.

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.