Electric mail trucks get a big boost in Democrats’ infrastructure bill

For months, Democrats in Congress have focused on immediate recovery from the coronavirus, saying they would turn to long-term stimulus when the time is right.

The time is apparently right. This week, House Democrats unveiled their Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill. It is capacious: $300 billion for repair of existing infrastructure, $100 billion for public transit, $100 billion for affordable housing infrastructure, $100 billion for broadband, $100 billion for high-poverty schools, $70 billion for upgrades to the electricity grid, and many, many smaller items.

The bill contains multitudes, but it is just an opening bid. It will eventually make its way to the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is certain to bargain it down and try to strip out anything he sees as “green,” if he brings it to a vote at all.

If it does come to a vote, there will be more to discuss. For now, I just want to focus on one tiny gem in the bill that has made me — and the dozens (?) of other people obsessed with this issue — very happy.

To wit: The Moving Forward Act contains money to electrify mail trucks!

Making the US Postal Service a vanguard for electric vehicles

Back in April, I wrote an in-depth post on why replacing the US Postal Service’s fleet of delivery trucks with electric vehicles is a good idea, why now is the perfect time to do it, and where the process stands within the USPS.

To summarize: USPS trucks are old and janky. They get poor gas mileage, have no air conditioning, regularly burst into flames, and are imposing huge and rising fuel and maintenance costs on the already-struggling agency. Replacing them with electric delivery trucks would radically reduce those costs, improve driver health and performance, and reduce air and noise pollution in districts across the US.

USPS mail carrier Lizette Portugal poses for a portrait in front of her truck before departing on her delivery route amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 30, 2020, in El Paso, Texas.
Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

The USPS says it needs about $6 billion to replace its vehicles and about $25 billion overall to save itself from financial ruin. Well, if you scroll way, way down in the Moving Forward Act to Division I, Sec. 50001, you find this:

Authorizes $25 billion in funding for the Postal Service for the modernization of postal infrastructure and operations, including through capital expenditures to purchase delivery vehicles, processing equipment, and other goods. The section reserves $6 billion for the purchase of new vehicles.

Then Sec. 50002 gets more specific about how the $6 billion for vehicles must be used:

Requires the Postal Service to use any of the authorized funds to purchase electric or zero-emission vehicles to replace its current right-hand-drive vehicles to the maximum extent practicable. However, at least 75 percent of the new fleet must be such vehicles. The section would also require that the fleet of medium and heavy-duty trucks consist of at least 30 percent of electric vehicles by 2030 and that any vehicle purchased after 2040 be electric or zero-emission.

A minimum of 75 percent electric vehicles: that’s awesome. Beyond the immediate health benefits and the long-term savings for the USPS, this would be an incredible marketing coup for electric vehicles generally.

The Postal Service is the US public’s favorite government agency. It is a friendly, reliable presence in every community in the nation. If the familiar, boxy mail trucks were replaced with electric trucks, every American who interacts with a postal carrier — which is nearly every American — would have a chance to see an electric vehicle with their own eyes, in a workaday, non-political context.

It would do more to raise awareness of electric vehicles than any conceivable amount of marketing. And there’s evidence that electric vehicles, much like solar panels, are “contagious,” meaning that people who see them in their own community are more likely to buy them. The Moving Forward Act would spread EVs like a contagion across the country (a good contagion for once).

Using post offices to kickstart electric vehicle charging infrastructure

Speaking of acting as a vanguard, there is one other intriguing provision in Sec. 50002: “The section would require the Postal Service to provide at least one charging station at each publicly accessible facility it owns or leases by 2026 and ensure that it has adequate charging facilities to keep its fleet operating.”

Every analyst agrees that one of the major challenges facing electric vehicles is the lack of charging infrastructure. It creates a perpetual chicken-and-egg problem: the infrastructure doesn’t make sense without the cars; the cars don’t make sense without the infrastructure.

The research consultancy Brattle Group put out a report this week projecting that EVs in the US will grow from today’s 1.5 million to between 10 and 35 million by 2030. Part of what will enable (or constrain) that growth is charging infrastructure. Out of the $75 to $125 billion in investments in the electricity system Brattle estimates will be needed to support EV growth, about $30 to $50 billion need to go to charging infrastructure.

ev charger needs Brattle

Nothing would do more to increase consumer confidence in EV charging infrastructure than having an EV charger publicly available at every post office. It could finally break the chicken-and-egg stalemate: It would make EV chargers a familiar part of public infrastructure, prompting more consumers to choose EVs, prompting more investment in chargers.

Given the amount of federal spending needed to pull the US economy out of a nosedive, $25 billion for the USPS isn’t much, and $6 billion for electric postal trucks is peanuts. But it’s a smart investment that would return itself many times over in health, economic, and social benefits.

“This provision is a win all the way around,” California Rep. Jared Huffman told me. “We can slash emissions from one of the largest vehicle fleets in the world, boost clean vehicle manufacturing in this country, build out EV charging infrastructure, and help the USPS save money on wasted fuel and maintenance costs for an aging fleet.”

The provision was drawn from Huffman’s Federal Leadership in Energy Efficient Transportation (FLEET) Act, for which he has been fighting a lonely battle since 2014. He is cautiously optimistic about its chances.

“Good legislation has a tendency to die at Mitch McConnell’s hand,” he says, “but I hope he’s smart enough to see how much this will benefit the country and doesn’t leave it on the cutting room floor.”

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