Biden’s infrastructure plan could pave trucking’s zero-emissions future

President Joe Biden came into office this year with a slogan: “Build Back Better.” How the new administration plans to tackle an ambitious infrastructure plan, which is expected to cost more than $3 trillion, will be unveiled by the president in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

The spending package, which could be paid for with tax increases on corporations and wealthy Americans, is expected to come in two parts, with the initial focus on infrastructure investments and a domestic manufacturing revival while also combating climate change. 

The timeline for the legislation is expected to be longer and include more Republican input than the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that was just pushed through Congress without bipartisan support. 

“Taking my lead from President Biden and Vice President Harris, I stand ready to work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to deliver an infrastructure package that meets this consequential moment and ensures a future worthy of our great nation,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure on March 25.

While it came up during the hearing last week, Buttigieg said on March 29 that a fuel tax or vehicle-miles-traveled tax would not be part of the upcoming infrastructure bill.

The committee hearing on the administration’s transportation infrastructure priorities included a big push toward zero-emission vehicles of all sizes. But the safety of truck drivers was on the minds of some congressmen. 

Truck parking

Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), whose grandfather started a trucking company in 1933, pressed Buttigieg to prioritize truck driver safety, starting with the “truck parking crisis across the country.” He said the Department of Transportation has been studying the problem for years. “They know it’s a real problem and it’s past time that the DOT prioritizes this issue and addresses it.”

Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and the youngest member of Biden’s cabinet, said he recognizes the concern about truck parking. “I hope to get more familiar with it in short order,” he told the committee. “There are certainly tools that could be used — whether we’re talking about the efficiency of how trucks are routed or whether we’re talking about the uses of right-of-way, and I will do what I can to have a more informed response on that by the next time we speak.”

Bost said the trucking industry is losing drivers over safety concerns that include reliable, safe parking. The Republican is one of the original sponsors of bipartisan legislation that would use federal money to increase truck parking spaces across the country. The Truck Parking Safety Improvement Act, which was reintroduced in the House on March 29, would use $755 million from the federal Highway Trust Fund to support state projects to increase parking.

“The severe shortage of safe parking presents truckers with an untenable dilemma: either keep driving when they are fatigued and possibly in violation of their federal hours-of-service requirement — or park in unsafe, sometimes illegal locations, such as a roadside shoulder,” Chris Spear, the American Trucking Associations’ president and CEO, said on March 29.

According to the ATA, there are currently 11 truck drivers for every parking space in the U.S., which has led to the average driver spending 56 minutes of available drive time to look for parking, which can cut into drivers’ wages and slow down supply chains.

 “The health and wellbeing of our drivers, the safety of the motoring public and the sustainability of our supply chain all depend on Congress addressing this issue with adequate funding in a surface transportation bill,” Spear said.

Truck emissions

Later in the hearing, Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) thanked the secretary for his commitment to addressing the transportation sector’s climate impacts. Brownley has been pushing Congress to create similar zero-emissions goals to California’s — including requirements that all transit buses purchased with federal money be zero-emissions by 2029.

Buttigieg said he wasn’t ready to commit to that timeline for transit “but I certainly believe that this is the time for us to have ambitious goals to get to zero carbon,” which he acknowledged would include transit vehicles. 

Brownley is also the co-sponsor of a bill that would include medium- and heavy-duty trucks in the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, which right now is designed to support the production of zero-emissions light-duty vehicles.

Buttigieg said that his department’s goals are also dependent on other federal programs such as this Energy Department program, which was authorized by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. But he also noted that a nationwide conversion to EVs will take time. “From a grid perspective, we’re going to need enhancements to the grid for any kind of EV adoption to be as widespread as we hope — whether it’s on the medium- and heavy-duty side or on the light-duty side,” Buttigieg said. “We also know that in electric vehicles only as clean as the power that goes into it.”

Another California Democrat, Rep. Alan S. Lowenthal, emphasized “the critical importance of heavy-duty vehicle electrification.” He said that commercial vehicles are responsible for “a quarter of the U.S. transportation emissions.”

Lowenthal, whose district includes the Port of Los Angeles, said a zero-emissions future would transform his community. “These are frontline communities where diesel pollution — even though the ports have done an amazing job of trying to reducing it — is still an enduring challenge,” he said. “And where the cost of climate change is extremely high.”

To transform the ports and other transportation sectors to zero-emissions, the congressman noted, will take time. “It’s going to take effort and it’s going to take federal support,” he said. “We all know efficient freight movement is absolutely critical — but it does present unique technical problems.”

Among those problems, he noted, it will cost an estimated $14 billion for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to accomplish clean air action plans goals to move to zero-emissions cargo equipment and trucks within the ports by 2030.

Buttigieg acknowledged that maritime emissions is about more than just ships. “So much of it is in trucks and other vehicles and infrastructure that are around those ships as they come into port,” he said. “That can have tremendous implications for environmental justice and for the well-being of our communities. So from a particulate-matter pollution perspective, as well as a carbon and climate perspective, we’ve got to make sure that we’re pursuing all of the above.” That includes mode shifting, so when possible to make sure that each piece of cargo is on the most emissions responsible mode that it can be that’s appropriate to that particular piece of cargo and where it’s headed across water, rail, roadway, etc. And it’s also about making sure that each of those has the right kind of technology.” 

For trucking, the secretary said he supports encouraging all emerging zero-emission technologies, including hydrogen-powered trucks. “Because we never know where the breakthroughs might lie,” he said. “We’re driven most of all by the outcome — more than the inputs. But we recognize there is a federal role in terms of research and in terms of policy support for these promising technologies to develop in the first place. 

For EVs to compete with traditionally-powered vehicles, Buttigieg later noted, the U.S. would need a well-designed charging network. “The current charging time for a vehicle is not comparable to what you get at the gas pump,” he said. “On the other hand, electric vehicles can be charged right in your backyard in a way that, of course, none of us would want to install a gas pump in our backyard. So we really have to recognize that there’s going to be a balance of how charging happens that not quite the same as what we’re used to in terms of how fueling happens.”

Along with electrical charging networks and other investments in clean energy, the infrastructure plan that President Biden is expected to unveil on March 31 in Pittsburgh would include traditional projects such as upgrading and replacing roads, bridges, rails, public transit and airports. 

Biden is expected to also push for a second infrastructure bill that would focus less on traditional transportation issues and more on Democrats’ domestic priorities that include education funding, broadband internet, and childcare.