Clean Transportation in PA: Big Questions for 2022 (Part 1)

How will PennDOT use its EV infrastructure funds provided under the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act?

Credit: Emmett Werthmann/WRI, CC BY-NC 4.0

This blog was co-authored with Will Bernstein, Climate Advisor to the City of Pittsburgh

This is the first part of a three-part blog. This first blog focuses on the Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the funding that may be coming into Pennsylvania as well as opportunities for the Commonwealth to adopt regulations to help increase the number of electric vehicles (EVs) available to customers. Part II discusses a petition concerning EV rate design filed at the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and transportation legislation in the General Assembly. Part III focuses on the importance of sustainable transit funding and other tools for reducing vehicle miles travelled.

If you were among the 101 million Americans who watched the Super Bowl this year, you likely noticed a common theme in many of the commercials: electric vehicles (EVs) are just not the future; they’re here today, and car companies are going all in to manufacture and sell them.

(You may also have noticed the cryptocurrency commercials—but that’s another story).

People increasingly want EVs. Some are motivated by the fact that electrifying the transportation sector is critical to reducing health-harming and climate pollution (as is driving cars less and using public transit, walking, and biking more). Most, however, just like driving EVs better than driving gasoline and diesel-powered cars due to their high performance and smooth operation—and know that doing so can save them a lot of money on fueling and maintenance costs.

States have several key roles to help accelerate the transition to EVs:

  • First, they need to support robust public charging networks to alleviate “range anxiety,” the fear of running out of charge before reaching a charging station.
  • Second, they need to help make EVs available and affordable, especially in the early days of the transition.
  • Third, they must ensure that EV charging is both affordable to individual drivers and cost-effective on a system-wide basis, so that it results in lower household electricity rates and optimizes the use of the electric grid.
  • Fourth, they need policies to replace revenues from gasoline and diesel taxes, which currently play a major role in funding transportation infrastructure and transit.

To date, Pennsylvania hasn’t distinguished itself in any of these areas. This year, however, the Commonwealth could make progress on all of them, depending on how it answers four important questions: 

Question 1: How will PennDOT use its EV infrastructure funds provided under the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA), and what competitive IIJA grants will it seek? 

Signed into law by President Biden in November 2021, the bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA) dedicates $7.5 billion to support the build-out of electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the U.S. The goal is to build over 500,000 stations throughout the country.

Under IIJA, Pennsylvania can take advantage of two different sources of EV infrastructure money. First, over the next five years, Pennsylvania will receive around $172 million under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula, or “NEVI” program. Initially, this funding must be used to build public charging stations along Pennsylvania’s 15 federal interstate highways; then, after all of the interstates are built out with charging stations every 50 miles—which will help to reduce range anxiety—the Commonwealth will be able to use NEVI funds to help build charging stations on any other “public road or in other publicly accessible locations.”

To qualify for NEVI funds, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) must submit a State EV Infrastructure Deployment Plan to the federal Joint Energy and Transportation Office by August 1, 2022. And there is a cost share involved: the Commonwealth must provide 20 cents of state or private funds (or some combination) for every 80 cents of NEVI funds.

Second, section 11401 of the IIJA makes $2.5 billion available for “charging and fueling infrastructure” available on a “competitive” basis, meaning that funds will be awarded in the form of grants that states, local governments, and other entities can apply for. Of this, at least $1.25 billion must be used for “community grants” where priority is given to projects that expand access to EV charging and alternative fueling infrastructure in rural areas, low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, and communities with a low ratio of private parking spaces

Unlike the NEVI funds, these section 11401 monies are not limited to EV infrastructure—they can also be used for other alternative fueling infrastructure. However, to be competitive among other states in a world shifting to EVs, the Commonwealth should focus their applications on additional funds for EV infrastructure. Will PennDOT seek competitive funds to continue its $84 million fossil fuel build-out—a path that would please the gas industry but practically no one else—or invest in the EV infrastructure that Pennsylvanians want?

Each program raises more questions for Pennsylvania than this blog can address. For the NEVI program, though, most of these questions—from where charging infrastructure will be sited to how the Commonwealth’s matching funds will be raised—will be addressed through PennDOT’s state plan. For immediate purposes, the questions are: how will PennDOT develop that plan? What stakeholders will be engaged? What kind of public comment process will PennDOT conduct?

While these questions are yet to be answered, it is imperative that PennDOT make this process transparent and directly engage community members—especially those historically overburdened with transportation pollution—to fully understand communities’ transportation needs. PennDOT’s new “Electric Vehicle Equity Guiding Principles” do commit the agency to such engagement, and to ensuring that that “40 percent of the overall benefits from [electric vehicle supply equipment] goes towards projects in underserved, low-income, persons of color, disabled and otherwise vulnerable population areas.” But is PennDOT prepared to make good on these commitments?

Wisely spending its IIJA funds on EV infrastructure would provide numerous benefits to Pennsylvanians. But IIJA alone won’t fix everything. It’s also important to keep in mind that while the IIJA funds are an important starting point, these investments will not be sufficient to fully reduce air pollution from the transportation sector, and additional funding and standards will need to be in place to support this transition.

Question 2: Will Pennsylvania adopt policies to make more EVs, electric buses, and electric trucks available for sale in Pennsylvania?  

Pennsylvania would put itself in a better position to obtain competitive IIJA EV infrastructure funds by improving EV availability in the Commonwealth.  One way to do that is the adoption of the “Zero Emissions Vehicles” (ZEV) program.

State ZEV programs require automobile manufacturers to meet annual state sales targets for EVs. In practical terms, this induces manufacturers to make more EV models available to car dealers in the state and increase their promotion of EVs to car buyers. Currently, fifteen U.S. states have ZEV programs, including three that border Pennsylvania (New Jersey, Maryland, and New York), and many Pennsylvanians go to those states to buy EVs because automakers tend to prioritize more of their EV sales efforts and shipments in the ZEV states.  Most recently, Delaware announced plans to adopt a ZEV program as well. With a ZEV program, the Commonwealth could ensure that more Pennsylvanians are able to buy EVs from Pennsylvania businesses and keep sales within in the state, while also allowing customers the ability to choose the types of vehicles they want to buy.

Because replacing internal-combustion engine cars with EVs reduces air pollution, ZEV programs are administered by state environmental agencies. Last fall, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced a process to develop a ZEV  program by amending the regulations that constitute the current Pennsylvania Clean Vehicles (PCV) Program (Chapter 126, Subchapter D). The DEP has not advanced its proposed rulemaking since then, however, and the status of the DEP process is unclear.

Meanwhile, at the end of February, the DEP took a positive (if small) step to cut pollution from medium- and heavy-duty (MHD) vehicles in Pennsylvania, releasing a request for information concerning a new MHD competitive grant solicitation pilot program. The pilot’s proposed outcomes include “improving air quality as a result of lowered vehicle emissions; improving air quality in one or more environmental justice areas; benefitting the electric vehicle supply chain in this Commonwealth; providing fleet managers with ZEV performance data; and increasing MHD ZEV purchases.”

This is Pennsylvania’s first policy action to advance MHD ZEVs since Governor Wolf signed a 2020 Memorandum of Understanding committing to move the Commonwealth from dirty fossil fuel trucks towards zero-emission electric vehicles. With hope, the pilot will set the state for a regulatory MHD program under Pennsylvania’s next governor, such as the Advanced Clean Truck and Heavy Duty Omnibus rules. Comments are due on March 28, 2022.

Related Issues

Related Blogs