The bipartisan infrastructure bill is good for EVs, bad for the climate

A Tesla Inc. Model S electric vehicle charges at a Supercharger station in Rubigen, Switzerland, on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk has captivated the financial world by blurting out via Twitter his vision of transforming Tesla into a private company. Photographer: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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.

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