Build Back Better takes keen look at ICE-free transportation by 2050
The transportation portion of the Build Back Better (BBB) (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by 117th Congress) takes a keen look at alternative fueling methods. It’s in effect a road map of supporting largely non-internal-combustion-engine (ICE) type vehicles by 2050, with critical targets set for 2030, and report reviews at five year intervals.
H.R. 3684 is much bolder than it appears at first glance, and it goes much deeper than merely re-appropriating funds to critical infrastructure sectors such as energy, water, utilities, and highways. Key words such as resiliency, sustainability, private-public partnerships, electric battery, electrical fueling infrastructure, battery recycling, and research and development are mentioned even more often than common buzzwords such as climate change.
In fact, it appears to be a roadmap lifted right from the American Society of Civil Engineers 21st century “building for adaptive infrastructure” vision. A progressive element within the ASCE technical committee is rightly concerned with the threat which climate change poses for the stability of existing national infrastructure, whether it’s hydroelectric dams, Alaskan viaducts, grid connections, water supply, public transportation, or rail. Scientists warn that climate change will bring unpredictable weather, typhoons, floods, drought, and wildfires.
Here’s a bird’s eye view of the massive 1300 page proposal on how radical the bill really is—-and why conservative thinktanks opposed it—-while creating new jobs and bringing America up to speed with China in deploying, manufacturing, and supporting alternative transportation use whether vehicles, rail, delivery, or interurban.
1— First in priority appears to be fostering growth in electrical vehicle (EV) use nationwide. This is a fulfillment of President Biden’s campaign promise to create jobs while making sustainability affordable for everyone and meeting the Paris Climate Accord of keeping global warming to within a couple degrees. The bill does so by encouraging SMART (strengthen-mobility-and-revolutionizing-transportation) grants in research, development, data-gathering, and risk-analysis on the viability of new electrical fueling infrastructures. University transportations centers will serve as hubs at critical nodes around the country where new manufacturing methods, needs in battery efficiency, fuel consumption, charging capabilities will continually be assessed. The appropriations include cuts for cybersecurity enhancements to protect and enhance the performance of the energy grid.
To bring the nation’s vehicles to speed electrically there are legal incentives to companies, government agencies, and manufacturing industries to electrify their transportation fleets, whether passenger, medium, or heavy-duty vehicles. One of the main obstacles for electrical vehicle (EV) usage at this time remains the dearth of public charging stations—and the time it takes to charge vehicles. Build-back-better (BBB) will provide for this by encouraging growth in private-public partnerships for rapidly expanding charging networks, such as rewarding for sharing technology, public relations advertising, mapping tools, and participation in boards working to certify and standardize charge ports.
2— While there are limited rebates for purchasing EV’s—which has discouraged ownership despite global growth in hybridized electric vehicle use over the past twenty years—the government is expecting costs to become competitive by 2023. This is why under Title V, the bill stipulates the establishment of a Smart Community Resource Center. Unlike the one-stop shop for the Affordable Care Act, this Center is already in place, but poised to expand as the consumer-economy converts to electrified transportation. At the present time, for instance, EV owners can quickly map their location to the nearest charging station for free from tools at the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuel Vehicles webpage.
3— The Federal Highway Administration also anticipates the rapid growth in EV by growing their own alternative fuel toolkits. Meanwhile EVgo is attempting to fill the gap in mapping fast-charging stations and demonstrating that EV-charging does not have to be limited to the space in one’s home garage. Obviously there is a still an inflection point to overcome in public opinion. For one thing, the impacts of Covid-19/government-shutdown work-from-home policies are an understudied subject. Changes in consumer habits from travel to shopping, part-time employment to personal services, even people moving to the suburbs can affect the break-even point for justifying an EV purchase. Engineering studies on how lane widths narrowed by semi-permanent outdoor-dining facilities located along road shoulders and gutters influence traffic flow and safety also remain to be done.
In many metropolitan cities, empirical theory lags behind evolving new smart-transportation usage including electric scooters, electric bicycles, zip cars, bikes, or other personal transporters. Do they relieve or impede traffic flow? What is the cost-benefit when there are accidents? The litter of such vehicles is such that the District of Columbia Department of Transportation is levying fines against permits for reckless abandonment of dockless vehicles (eg. laying them across sidewalk corners does jeopardize wheelchair-crossings).
4— Over the past decade, great efforts have transformed many transportation nodes into smart, multimodal hubs symbolized by Penn Station, St. Louis Amtrak station, Union Station, and Milwaukie Amtrak center. Secretary Department of Transportation, Peter Buttigieg, has specialized experience in smart gentrification, thus generous outlays for Amtrak are included in BBB including along the Northeast Corridor, and the National Network, totaling several billion per year over the next five years, and including improving oversight in long distance routes and inner-city services, eliminating grade-level railroad crossings, restoration of culverts, local and regional project assistance, quality jobs, emergency lighting, and multi-state freight corridor planning. Social guarantees include promoting child safety, combatting human trafficking, and increasing the number of women in the trucking industry.
5— One of the most important takeaways from this reading is that this is by no means a static bill written in stone, but indeed will be dynamic based upon the emphasis on encouraging research and development, board formation (such as the EV Working Group), and the requirements of regular reports on progress. Pilot programs, improvements such as healthy streets or air quality or crash avoidance, and such new technologies must prove they meet over-arching goals for fostering global harmonization and standardization. This connects the BBB priorities back to the theme of resilience and sustainability at a time when greater flexibility and scalability is needed in reducing harm to the environments.
6— While EV ownership is less than 5% of vehicles sold in the United States, the industry is poised for growth as investors are primed to reap benefits from solar and wind contributions to the energy grid. The legislators are also hoping to collaborate across the border, for instance, by building a power-exchange for water-storage facilities improvements down to the Columbia Basin. Updating of all energy codes can spur local communities to adopt more favorable perspectives on reducing carbon emissions and encouraging the 4 R’s once again (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repair) concepts seemingly foreign to US markets. In fact, the importance of battery recycling is such that it’s mentioned repeatedly throughout the bill.
7— Whether its recycling from electric buses, personal vehicles, or medium-sized fleets, electrical vehicle batteries (EVBs) remain the single most costly line-item for vehicles sold. This is why for many years Tesla cars were so expensive is because even with the batteries being sourced in China, EVBs cost about ten thousand dollars apiece factory-made. Elon Musk credits the purchase of his own battery manufacturing plant in Canada for helping lower costs. Nevertheless another concern is that the source mineral, Lithium, is not easily mined and the locations are hard to reach, which increases availability and costs and environmental pollution. While on average the EVBs last about ten years, they can still suddenly fail for unexpected reasons or due to mischarging. It’s enough to merit BBB funding for provisional studies on securing logistics, improving battery density, and exploring other alternative fuels such as hydrogen fuel batteries. Developing secondary markets for recycling EVBs is highlighted, whether for reuse as backup power for the energy grid to materials recovery.
8— The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act by the 117th Congress also appropriates funding for public transportation systems, transit-oriented development, bus-testing facilities, and public transportation innovation. In urban areas, a majority of the population will travel by the cheapest mode, and public transit is still the option when it is affordable, widely available, and there are no parking costs involved. By contrast for urban residents, often the costs of parking or paying for a parking stall will be a consideration in ruling out EV purchases, whereas it continues to make economic sense for local governments to invest in fleets of EV-buses or similar demonstration projects.
With many European nations now decades ahead in rapid rail, alternative transportation, and EV-charging networks, this is difficult for an American-First attitude. HR 3684 does incorporate a Buy America priority, but all indications are that globalization will force America to collaborate to convert successfully to alternative transportation systems. The new transportation research centers is borrowed from the China-approach used in the development and manufacturing of her bullet trains. There is no doubt that unless America invests rapidly, heavily, and ethically in EV research and development this will become another area, just as in the solar panels, that China will use the Amazon-strategy of underbidding her competitors and forcing dependence on imports. Even now, the solar industry is flooded with cheap importable panels from China, but due to the persistent strength of the dollar, has managed to make solar panel installations still affordable and with a decent cost-of-returns, not to mention chalking one up for the environment or being able to live off-the-grid.
(1) “HR 3684,” https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/117/hr3684
(2) Wendover Productions, “The Electric Vehicle Charging Problem”
(3) “Electric Vehicle Charging Frequently Asked Questions,” EVgo.com
(4) “Hybrid, PHEV, and EV Compared,” Consumer.org.nz
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Photo & report by AGN, Editor Christine H. Kroll, PE, MA