Resilience and Transitioning to EVs Should Be Key Features in New Highway Bill

July 29, 2019 | 11:14 am
Photo: nsub1/Flickr
Jonna Hamilton
Director of Policy, Clean Transportation Program

This blog was written in collaboration with Shana Udvardy, Climate Resilience Analyst in the Climate and Energy Program.

Most legislation introduced in Congress doesn’t go anywhere – it doesn’t get a hearing, doesn’t get a vote, it just dies quietly at the end of the two-year congressional session.  However, there are a few things that Congress must do either annually or every few years, and these are the big “must-pass” bills that you sometimes hear people talk about.

The Surface Transportation Reauthorization package is one of those must-pass bills. Therefore, it is an important opportunity for Congress to include strong provisions that reduce dangerous heat-trapping emissions, accelerate the transition to electric vehicles,  and make transportation infrastructure more resilient to ensure it is prepared to withstand those extreme weather and climate-related impacts that are already unavoidable due to global warming.   Every five years or so, Congress takes a look at our transportation system and tells the agencies how they should alter their course — they evaluate how things have been going and send directions to the agencies involved on how to administer those programs going forward.  This process is always a massive undertaking, usually somewhat contentious, and covers a lot of policy ground (highway spending, safety, rail, transit, permitting, etc.).

This week, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee is going to officially kick off the beginning of the Surface Transportation Reauthorization process by considering their surface transportation reauthorization bill by holding a business meeting, where they will consider amendments to the base text (also called a “mark up”).  The base text should be released today (yes, the day before the business meeting), so we will all be reading it quickly and providing input into offices of members who sit on this committee.  If you’re thinking that it is a little crazy that we are only going to see bill text the day before the committee considers the bill, you are not wrong, but this will be a long process so this will not be our only bite at the apple. UCS wants Congress to pass a Surface Transportation Bill that ensures a low-carbon and resilient transportation system.

Reducing emissions and advancing clean vehicles

Given that the transportation sector is the leading contributor to US heat-trapping emissions (producing nearly 30 percent of all US global warming emissions) UCS is strongly advocating for using the Surface Transportation Bill to set the stage to deploy more electric vehicles (EVs).  We have a few ideas of things that should be included in this bill to make this a reality:

  • Include the Clean Corridors Act, which would create (and provide grant funding for) more highway “corridors” that connect urban centers by installing charging infrastructure (or hydrogen fueling stations) along the major routes between those cities. The charging stations should be fast charging stations, meaning that they can charge an EV to 80 percent in about 30 minutes.
  • Update the federal guidebook that standardizes signage to make sure that it includes EV signage that all states can choose to adopt. The last full update of this manual was in 2009, when there were only a handful of Tesla Roadsters on the road. The Department of Transportation has updated their interim guidance in the meantime, but having signage for people to know where charging stations are located is critical.
  • Increase funding for electric transit buses. In 2018, states and cities applied for grants totaling $558 million, but only $85 million of funding was available.  It comes as no surprise that cities and states are interested in converting transit buses to electric power – they provide both health benefits for the neighborhoods the buses operate in as well as climate benefits.
  • Ask states and metropolitan planning organizations to create EV plans, particularly on EV charging infrastructure deployment, to accommodate their citizens that choose to buy or lease EVs.

Given that climate change in the future will amplify the risks our vulnerable transportation systems already face, we also have some ideas on how to make more climate-ready and resilient transportation systems:

  • All infrastructure that we build now should be ready to withstand the future impacts of climate change – for example, new federally funded infrastructure should be built at least two feet above the “100-year” (1 percent annual chance) flood level.
  • Provide grant funding for climate-resilient infrastructure, specifically for coastal states, improving evacuation routes, and for flexible use of funds to account for future conditions.
  • Create an expert panel to study the likely impacts of climate change on transportation infrastructure and provide a report to Congress with recommendations and guidance on how to appropriately plan and build climate-ready transportation infrastructure.

This markup is just the first step in what will likely be a very long process.  Other committees in the Senate need to weigh in (Finance for tax issues, Commerce for rail and safety issues, Banking for transit issues) and then the House also needs to put together their multi-committee bill.  Finally, the House and Senate will need to resolve the differences between the bills in conference.  The existing authorization of the surface transportation programs (the Fast Act) expires in September 2020, so there is also a lot of time left in this process.  We will keep an eye on these issues as they move through Congress and do our best to ensure that strong electrification and climate resilience priorities are included in the final bill.