If it’s approved, the bipartisan infrastructure deal announced this week will make it easier for Americans to buy and own an electric car. But it won’t help meet President Joe Biden’s ambitious goal to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030.
Experts in urban policy and electrification told The Verge that the money authorized for a nationwide network of EV chargers would have a measurable impact on Americans’ car-buying choices. The $1 trillion deal ($550 billion of which is new spending) includes $7.5 billion to fund Biden’s plan to build half a million EV chargers across the country, which will help mend the mostly fractured, occasionally broken system we currently have. A more dependable charging network will likely help juice EV sales in the US over the next decade.
But it won’t help to steer people away from cars and toward more environmental modes of transportation, which many experts believe is necessary to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change.
There is a long way still to go. While a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators agreed on a broad framework of a deal, the bill still needs to pass through both chambers of Congress before it ends up on Biden’s desk for his signature. A lot could happen between now and then.
If this deal passes, though, it will likely entrench — not disrupt — the transportation habits of millions of Americans. The bipartisan infrastructure plan “will make it more feasible for Americans to buy EVs and then drive them around with fewer problems,” Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said in an email.
But when it comes to the question of whether the deal will encourage Americans to use modes of transportation that are cleaner than EVs, Freemark was more pessimistic. “The bill does not seem likely to produce the conditions for a movement of Americans away from driving and toward other modes like transit, walking, and biking,” he said.
There was an opportunity to revolutionize the way people get around. The proposal unveiled by the White House earlier this year was billed as an “equity-promoting, climate-change-preventing proposal,” Freemark tweeted. But as the process wound its way through the legislative meat-grinder, those radical elements — like funding for housing, schools, and racial equity — were left out.
For example, the bipartisan deal makes no provisions to require states and localities to “fix it first” before building new roads and highways. The original proposal called on states to repair existing roads and bridges before committing to new projects. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said as much in an interview with The Verge in May: “When we fix things, let’s fix them right,” he said, “not just redo the status quo.”
But that provision was dropped from the bipartisan deal, which allocates nearly three times as much money for highways ($300 billion) as it does for public transportation ($105 billion). That means our highway system is likely to expand at a much greater rate than our transit infrastructure. Wider roads typically lead to more car traffic — which, in turn, generates more planet-warming emissions.
“The bill provides next to nothing for non-motorized modes of transportation,” Freemark said.
In the days leading up to the bipartisan deal’s announcement, public transportation emerged as a sticking point in the negotiations. Democrats wanted 80 percent of the funds allocated for highways and 20 percent for transit, citing past precedent, while Republicans thought that 20 percent for transit was too much.
In the end, the deal would allocate $39 billion to modernize public transit, which the White House argues is the largest investment of its kind in US history. (As Freemark notes, the US spent more on transit proportionally in the late ’70s and early ’80s.) It would also replace thousands of buses and other transit vehicles with zero-emission upgrades.
Biden’s plan to shift Americans away from fossil fuel vehicles and toward ones powered by electricity is in slightly better shape. The president originally wanted $15 billion for EV charging; instead, it looks like he’ll get $7.5 billion. But while that looks bad on the surface — that’s 50 percent less! — the EV industry argues it will nonetheless be transformational.
“It is an historic investment in charging infrastructure, which is a really big deal,” said Joe Britton, executive director of the Zero Emission Transportation Association (ZETA), a Washington-based lobbying group that represents companies like Tesla, Uber, Rivian, Lucid Motors, and others. “Consumers will say, ‘Wait a minute, this is happening.’”
The White House had a plan to make up for the missing funds. According to E&E News, the administration thought it could use its “Infrastructure Financing Authority” to tap another $7.5 billion for charging stations. But that financing authority was dropped from the deal announced this week, leaving the administration without a replacement for the money.
In total, the bipartisan deal contains about $20 billion less for public transportation and EVs compared to the bipartisan framework that senators and the White House announced last June, E&E reports.
Also missing from the bipartisan deal is Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s proposal for point-of-sale discounts for anyone trading in a gas car for an electric one. Nor does it include incentives for manufacturers to phase out their production of internal combustion engines. The Democratic leader had said his goal was for every car manufactured in America to be electric by 2030 and every car on the road to be clean by 2040.
That’s ZETA’s expressed goal as well. But Britton said it won’t happen without “strong consumer incentives and strong charging investments.” He said he was holding out for additional incentives for EVs to be included in the budget reconciliation bill that Schumer has said he wants to pass alongside the bipartisan deal.
The current federal EV tax credit of $7,500 could increase to $12,500 under an amendment that was introduced by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to the Clean Energy for America bill. “I don’t know that that full [$12,500] survives reconciliation,” Britton said, “but you know, very strong consumer incentives are in the works.”
But if the question is whether this deal would help meet Schumer’s goal of turning every car on the road electric by 2040 or Biden’s goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030, the answer is definitely not under this current framework.
To understand why, look to this Twitter thread by Matthew Lewis, communications director at pro-housing group California YIMBY. In it, he notes that there are 280 million cars and trucks on the road in the US today, only 3 percent of which are electric. Americans typically buy 16–17 million cars every year, which would mean it would take roughly 16 years of EV-only sales to completely replace all of the gas cars currently on the road. Also, we would need a total ban on the sale and use of gas cars.
Some states have indicated they want to prohibit the sale and use of internal combustion engine vehicles in the future. But that’s not a sure thing, and there’s no national plan in place to phase out gas car production. Meanwhile, modest changes to land use and transit to transform cities into virtually car-free environments would be a better approach to electrifying every car in America. Better transit and more walkable and bikeable environments would mean fewer cars would be needed overall.
Without these changes, a climate catastrophe would be difficult to avoid.