DOT Readies Billions for National EV Charging Network, Chaos Ensues


us-capitol, public domain

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced today that it will distribute $5 billion to establish electric-vehicle charging along the interstate highway system. Managed by the newly formed  Joint Office of Energy and Transportation formed after the $1.2-trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed in Congress, the federal spend is a joint operation between the DOT and U.S. Department of Energy.

By 2030, the federal government is hoping to have a network of 500,000 charging stations in a bid to reduce range anxiety and spur EV adoption. But it wants individual states to make the necessary investments to connect the highway-based network to cities and towns. As you might have guessed, Democrat lawmakers have broadly supported the imitative while Republicans are calling it too expensive and a distraction from other aspects of U.S. infrastructure in need of maintenance. 

That’s nothing new. When IIJA (often referenced as the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill” in the media) was under consideration in the Senate. Republican legislators repeatedly said they wouldn’t vote on it due to how expensive it was. But they still voted to pass an amended version (69–30) in August, with the House showing overwhelming support (228–206) in November. Unfortunately, passing the bill didn’t end the conflict.

Now that the Transportation Department has confirmed it’ll be handing federal money to states, nobody seems to know exactly how this will work. Though we do know that the DOT expects a majority of states to look to the private sector to establish and maintain charging stations. We also know how much each state will be getting thanks to the funding breakdown issued by the Federal Highway Administration, and some states get a lot more money than others. That’s been a touchy subject, as is the Biden administration’s general desire to advance electrification at all costs.

Critics have already chided the administration for Build Back Better, suggesting the revised EV tax credit structure was blatantly political and would have unfairly advantaged unionized automakers while blindly funneling money into the industry via incentives. But the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation literally exists to promote electric vehicle sales in the United States and the assumed plan is to hand over the funding to private companies anyway. Granted, it’s a new member of the “headless fourth branch” of the government and will undoubtedly see its role expand — especially since the DOT is looking to do the same with some additional funding of its own. It just doesn’t have anything else on its plate right now.

States can expect $615 million in 2022, with the rest of the money being rationed out over the next eight years. The government is targeting 50 miles between stations but admitted some rural routes might require wider spacing.

Car and Driver spoke with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg in an effort to glean additional information on how the federal investment will be managed this week, starting with what the money can be used for. He said a majority of the funding has to be set aside for building chargers to ensure there’s enough to create a national network, adding that some of the cash can be reserved for their maintenance and operation. The investment cannot be used to fix up busted roads or rusty bridges, however.

“Clearly the trajectory here has to be toward a very high standard of reliability,” he said.

From C/D:

We had a few questions: What kind of charging technology is envisioned, and will they work for every EV? Buttigieg stated a preference to have such a network, mainly set up along major highways, to have “efficient fast chargers” but was light on details, saying “We’re going to look at all of this. I think we’re more interested in the standard than we are in picking and choosing technologies . . . It feels a bit like we’re living through the days when you still have VHS and Beta out there, and obviously over time that needs to be resolved.”

With a slew of electric pickup trucks due to hit the market, we inquired if there were plans to create pull-through chargers that could accommodate trailers. We had found in our recent test of the Rivian R1T that the current nature of most chargers, situated at the edge of parking lots, requires decoupling the trailer before plugging in. “These are the kinds of questions that I think [the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation] will take up,” Buttigieg responded. “I think we’re still as a country maybe a little bit too likely to assume [EV charging stations] are all the same as gas stations — just electrons instead of gas. The truth is that the profile for charging may look quite different.” That would seem to leave open the possibility that areas that see more commercial or recreational vehicles may get charging stations better suited for them to use.

He was also asked what’s to be done about the myriad of EV charging apps and their various payment structures.

“We’re taking a good look at this,” Buttigieg said. “Part of this program is going to be a shared standard. If we’re going to use taxpayers’ dollars to help private actors put in charging stations, then of course we need to make sure the citizen is getting good value out of it. There may be any number of network benefits through loyalty programs.”

“That’s fine,” he continued, “but we’ve got to make sure . . . everybody can benefit.”

Buttigieg said these were the also kind of issues that could be solved with more outreach and actually diving into the program. As time goes on, he feels these questions will be answered organically. Right now, he thinks it’s more important that the government create expectations for the public that will help assuage lingering fears about range anxiety so they’ll buy more battery-powered cars. Among these, he said, was issuing constant reminders that EVs can be charged at homes.

“The biggest thing [people] don’t know about charging infrastructure is they already have it: it’s the outlet on your wall,” Buttigieg explained.

With energy prices climbing and there being little talk of strengthening the grid to endure the heightened load, the government’s aggressive push toward electrification is bothersome to me. Surprisingly little of the Biden administration’s overarching infrastructure plan has anything to do with improving our existing roads and it’s pouring public money into the pockets of energy companies. Meanwhile, automakers are getting payouts for going green and receiving financial penalties for focusing on what sells. Perhaps it would be more palatable if the government offered a clearer vision of its plot or exercised even a modicum of restraint in terms of spending.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has continued falling under harsh criticism among the opposition. Conservative lawmakers have started to accuse IIJA of being implemented politically and exceeding the limits of what could be considered a traditional infrastructure plan.

On Wednesday, the House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth held a hearing to discuss how expanding infrastructure investments might fix social disparities. Florida Republican Rep. Bryan Donalds suggested that they probably couldn’t and that thinking otherwise was a distraction from other problems needing attention, representing the ideological fracture along party lines.

“Infrastructure is something that there is a public need for,” Donalds stated during the hearing. “I think the debate is starting to shift [away] from necessary public infrastructure … From a federal perspective now, we’re coming to the point where is it a public infrastructure project to help alleviate broad public good or now are we starting to get into intimate private aspects of infrastructure to rebalance playing fields in the United States? That’s a very different conversation.”

While enough Republicans ultimately voted for the $1.2-trillion plan (after some revisions) to get it passed, many lawmakers on both sides of the fence admitted they didn’t have time to read the entire bill. Then, the Federal Highway Administration issued a letter to all 50 states in December that appeared to discourage them from expanding or repairing highways while encouraging green and social initiatives. Things have been breaking down ever since with both sides getting their dander up.

“[The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s] implementation is being dictated often by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., and not by local officials,” Ranking Member Bryan Steil (R-WI) said at the hearing. “Highway investments that don’t reach certain democratic guidelines and vague standards may not be prioritized for new grant money … This leaves potential projects vulnerable to a political motivation, underfunding if they don’t reach the social demands of the Department of Transportation.”

The bottom line? Republicans don’t like the direction Democrats have taken with infrastructure — even though a lot of them voted for this. Democrats don’t like the pushback they’re getting from Republicans — even though they don’t seem to have a clear understanding of how they intend to manage these investments. And we voted them all into office.

[Images: Architect of the Capitol/; Department of Transportation]

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