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Merkley rides the trail for electric vehicles

Nobody heard U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley's ultra-quiet Nissan Leaf and the convoy of electric vehicles surrounding him pull off Interstate 5 into Ashland Tuesday.

It was his last recharge spot before cresting the Siskiyou Mountains into California and completing a 340-mile, electric-propelled road trip from Oregon's northern border.

Merkley made nine stops to plug in the Nissan over the two-day trip, he said, a part of his "border-to-border, oil-free" campaign to support U.S. efforts to lessen dependence on foreign oil.

The all-electric Nissan "handles just like a regular car," Merkley said. It recharges in as little as 30 minutes, has a battery range of 80 to 120 miles, and costs about $17,500, not including state and federal tax incentives for purchasing electric vehicles.

Merkley has wanted to take an electric-vehicle trip across Oregon since the cars started to emerge in the U.S. market, he said after a press conference at Brammo headquarters on Ashland's Clover Lane.

"I thought, the moment the infrastructure is completed, let's do it," Merkley said, standing beside the Nissan. "This puts zero exhaust out "… that's a huge positive feature, and now there is affordability."

Merkley has a record of pushing for sustainable energy alternatives. In 2010 he introduced the Oil Independence for a Stronger America Act with U.S. senators Tom Carper of Delaware, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Michael Bennet of Colorado. The act would eliminate the need to import oil outside North America, he said, and ramping up the production of electric vehicles plays a major role in the plan.

Nissan currently has about 15,000 Leafs on the road, said Richard Weber, fleet and lease manager for Lithia Nissan of Medford, because not many more were made, but in December the manufacturer plans to crank out 200,000 of its all-electric model, he said.

"Availability has been a problem," said Weber, "They are coming, though, and they are just a smart buy."

Ashland Mayor John Stromberg, State Sen. Alan Bates and Ashland State Rep. Peter Buckley, among others, spoke at a ceremony for Merkley's effort.

"This is a visionary trip that Senator Merkley has made," Bates said. "Frankly, my next car is going to be an electric car."

"Somebody has to take the first step, and that's what Senator Merkley is about," Stromberg said.

"If our country could get to energy independence, think about what that could mean," Buckley said.

Merkley mostly used chargers installed through the federally funded West Coast Green Highway initiative, which received a $1.32 million grant last year to construct charging stations every 40 to 60 miles along I-5 in Washington and Southern Oregon.

ECOtality, a San Francisco-based electric transportation research and development firm, which has teamed with the city of Ashland for two downtown charging stations, also has dozens of chargers along the I-5 corridor. The company was awarded about $230 million in grant money, partly from the U.S. Department of Energy, to manage a three-year project to promote electric-vehicle support infrastructure, which started in October 2009.

"This project is about independence," Merkley said, "charting a course to oil independence."

After jetting back down the Siskiyous from California behind the wheel of his leased Nissan, Merkley left for his home in Portland, but he didn't go electric. He drove a gas-powered model.

"We have to get back tonight," he said, smiling. "It's the Fourth of July."

Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or swheeler@dailytidings.com.

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley drives a Nissan Leaf through Ashland Tuesday near the end of a road trip from Oregon’s northern border to California. Daily Tidings / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch