Zero-emission Transportation Must Be Included in Congressional Priorities

August 18, 2021 | 9:33 am
Jonna Hamilton
Former Contributor

The Senate has been very busy in the past few weeks, and after they come back from “recess” (aka the home work period), they are going to pick right up where they left off.

The big story, in my mind anyway, is that we finally seem to be doing something that will address transportation emissions and climate change in Congress, and although things aren’t perfect, it’s definitely a good news story. Now they just have to finish the work that they have started and get it to President Biden’s desk.

The bipartisan infrastructure framework (turned deal, turned Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act)

The much-hailed bipartisan infrastructure bill passed the Senate on August 10, 2021. There is some good stuff in there, but it doesn’t go far enough to combat the climate crisis in general, or to decarbonize transportation.

There were several provisions that we worked hard to make sure were included (and were as good as possible), but almost none of them go as far as we would have liked or climate needs demand.

  • EV Charging Infrastructure – the bill does fund $7.5 billion worth of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, but it makes EV charging compete with propane, natural gas, and hydrogen refueling for a third of that amount. Most of the funds concentrate on infrastructure investments along highway corridors, which is helpful in ensuring people with EVs can travel between locations that are further apart. The bill also includes $1.25 billion for community grants, to ensure access to charging and fueling at publicly accessible locations (like grocery stores), with priority given to places like rural areas and low-income communities. However, there is clearly more work to do here.
  • Electric School Buses – diesel exhaust is bad for our health and reducing diesel emissions from school buses has been shown to decrease incidences of asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia and also decreases absenteeism. So electric school buses seem like a no brainer, right? Wrong. While the White House made it clear that they wanted the bipartisan Senate group to put $7.5 billion into electric school buses, instead we got $2.5 billion to electric school buses, $2.5 billion to fossil fuel school buses that they called “clean” school buses (CNG, propane, biofuels (which would really be diesel buses), and $2.5 billion to ferries (no, not just electric ferries, which would be cool). We had to fight, along with allies in Congress, to get this provision changed to ALLOW electric buses to qualify for the clean (aka fossil) funding bucket. Many thanks to the 128 organizations that signed onto our last minute letter supporting the full $7.5 billion for electric school buses.
  • Transit Funding – The bipartisan group of Senators who put together this deal shortchanged the transit agreement with the White House by $10 billion. That’s a lot of money to not spend and is a huge missed opportunity, particularly because they didn’t fund operations – meaning paying more money for actually operating transit, which could increase the frequency and reliability of public transit and make it easier for more people to make transit their primary way of getting around. Instead, they focused on capital investments – building things and acquiring new buses and trains, which are important, but only part of the picture. And although there are a number of important investments in zero-emission public transit, the bill also misses opportunities to more fundamentally shift our transportation system away from personal car dependence. For example, although it establishes a carbon reduction program, it fails to require states or metropolitan areas to track and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through their transportation investments. It’s not the transformative change we wanted to see on this front.
  • Electric Transit Buses – Electric transit buses are a critical component of zero-emission transit systems. The Department of Transportation has a program called the Low and No Emission Bus Program (in DC we just call it LowNo) that has, in recent years, been funded between $85-180 million annually. This program is incredibly oversubscribed, and pretty much all the transit agencies applying want electric buses. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman DeFazio used his version of the infrastructure bill into zero-emission bus program, which we supported. The Senate, however, went the other way. They gave the LowNo program $5.25 billion AND they said that all funds that go into this program, now and forevermore, must be split so that at least 25% of the funds are spent on technology that is NOT zero-emission technology. Another near win.

To recap, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act does some good things. It spends about $17.5 billion on electrification, but not JUST electrification – they really showed how much they like natural gas by making it eligible for almost all of these programs. And it was good, but definitely not great, for transit.

So, what’s next? Budget reconciliation, that’s what.

Immediately after voting for final passage on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in the Senate, the Senators turned their attention to the budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2022. This year, it includes instructions to spend $3.5 trillion through budget reconciliation which basically allows the party in the majority to pass bills with a simple majority.

This is the climate bill we have all been waiting for! This is our moment, people. This is where the magic happens. We are going to pass an ambitious bill that will put real spending behind the things we need to do to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. My colleagues have been writing about what they hope to see in the climate and clean electricity, and food and agriculture spaces. So here is my missive on clean, zero-emission transportation.

Transportation electrification provisions that must be included in budget reconciliation

I’ve got a list. Here it goes.

  • EV consumer purchase tax incentive – right now, most of you probably know, if you buy a new EV you can take a $7,500 tax credit. Unless you buy a GM or Tesla because they are out of credits. Or unless you don’t make enough to have $7,500 worth of tax liability. So, we are working to modify the tax credit so that you can get it no matter what vehicle you purchase and also are aiming to make it easier for everyone to access – either by making it a point-of-sale rebate or a refundable tax credit so you can take the credit whether you have the tax liability or not. We would also like to have this credit support domestic manufacturing and companies with robust labor standards by including an additional incentive for vehicles produced by companies that meet those criteria.
  • USED EV consumer purchase incentive – what about the two-thirds of car buyers who buy used cars? We are advocating for a used EV incentive to help lower- and middle-income folks purchase used EVs. They’re good for everyone, not just people who can afford to buy new ones, so we want to make them more attractive and cost-competitive in the used market as well.
  • Medium- and Heavy-Duty Vehicle tax incentive – you know all those delivery trucks bringing you your online purchases? They could all be electric. Garbage trucks too. And companies are making real progress on bigger tractor-trailers as well. Currently they are more expensive to buy, but in some applications, they cost so much less to fuel and maintain that they are already cheaper over their lifetimes. And they are key to reducing pollution in overburdened communities that are disproportionately impacted by toxic diesel pollution. Government has a role to play in helping to even out the initial upfront cost so that these vehicles can be made at scale so costs can come down. This is why we are calling for a tax incentive to support deployment of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.
  • Port electrification – ports are where goods enter the country and can be coastal or inland. No matter where they are, they are enormous sources of diesel emissions that contaminate air quality and negatively impact the communities around them. We MUST electrify the vehicles and equipment at ports to protect the health of these communities. Congress should include investments to do just that in reconciliation.
  • EV charging infrastructure – There is a tax credit for individuals and businesses who want to install charging infrastructure, and this is really important. The tax credit keeps expiring and Congress generally extends it, but frequently not until the year is already over, which is a lesson in how NOT to spur investment. We support extending the tax credit so everyone can count on receiving it when they plan to install infrastructure.
  • Accelerate domestic manufacturing of EVs – the auto industry is critical to our manufacturing base, supports large parts of the local economy in many areas, and employs millions of workers. We need this industry to evolve here in the US to maintain leadership in the global industry. The path forward here is ensuring that we are investing in EV manufacturing. We support several tax credits and manufacturing programs to change factories over to producing EVs, bring battery and other component manufacturers to the US, and support new players in the EV industry. We want to make sure that we are building up jobs in the US and we want to make sure that the workers who have these jobs are working in safe environments and being paid well for their labor.
  • More for buses! Although there was some funding for electric school and transit buses in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, we don’t think that is sufficient. We are pressing for increased funding for both of these technologies in the reconciliation package.
  • Electrify the federal fleet – The government has over 500,000 light-duty vehicles in its fleet (including in the US Postal Service). That’s A LOT of cars. And hardly any of them are electric. And generally EVs exceed the performance needs of those vehicles. The government should lead by example and electrify its fleet.

If we manage to get all of these priorities funded in the reconciliation package, that is going to be a VERY significant investment in zero-emission transportation. This is what we are going to be pushing for until it’s done (sometime this fall). If we fail to get this done, well, the climate is going to suffer and I’m not sure when our next opportunity will come along to make this kind of progress. So please, join us, and urge your Member of Congress to live up to this moment and pass a strong climate-focused reconciliation bill!