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Republicans are clashing with the Biden administration over the rollout of the $1.2 trillion package, including on priorities like getting more electric vehicles on the road.
With control of Congress up for grabs this fall, congressional Republicans on Tuesday sought to portray President Biden’s signature infrastructure law as an overambitious flop that would hamper the U.S. economy.
During a marathon hearing that stretched more than four hours with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, several Republican House members faulted the administration on a variety of issues connected to the infrastructure law.
Buttigieg, who has emerged as the administration’s top salesperson on the public works package, remained unflappable as GOP members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee complained about inflation, cumbersome regulations and even the goal of replacing gas-powered vehicles with electric ones.
U.S. Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, the top-ranking Republican on the panel, said that spiraling inflation limited the buying power of states and everyone else trying to build new projects with money from the $1.2 trillion package.
“This is not shaping up to be the infrastructure bill that Americans were promised,” Graves said.
“Companies working in the transportation space are struggling with exploding costs across the board, and some of these companies can’t shoulder the risk of inflation, which means some of the businesses, especially smaller ones, are unable to even bid on some of the jobs,” Graves said. “At the same time, states are running over their transportation budgets, as they have the impossible task of estimating project costs, which are going to continue to increase exponentially.”
Graves also repeated a frequent Republican criticism that Buttigieg’s department was overstepping its bounds by encouraging state and local officials to use their new federal dollars to curb carbon dioxide pollution, address racial inequities and promote traffic safety.
“The result of the administration putting its agenda ahead of the law of the land – and even acting in contradiction to the law in some cases – is that infrastructure funding, already dramatically devalued by crippling inflation, is being diluted even further,” he said
Buttigieg also offered a stark picture of the problems with the country’s transportation systems, but in vastly different terms.
“We now have the most transformative transportation investment in most of our lifetimes in the form of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and it couldn’t have come at a more important time. From delays at ports to freight congestion to shortages in aviation, American transportation has rarely confronted this many intersecting challenges at once both immediate and entrenched,” he said.
The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor and 2020 presidential candidate noted that traffic deaths had risen to more than 43,000 people in 2021, that the transportation sector was now the biggest producer of carbon dioxide in the United States, and that transportation was the second-biggest household expense (after housing).
“This is also a moment of enormous opportunity,” Buttigieg said. “There is reason for optimism. Thanks to the infrastructure law, my department has never seen a moment of greater potential than now to build transportation resources that connect everyone safely, efficiently and affordably.”
Big Disagreements Over EVs
One of the more striking areas of disagreements came over the Biden administration’s commitment to having half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 be electric vehicles. Several Republicans argued that the goal was unrealistic, and could benefit China, which has been ramping up its electric vehicle exports.
Meanwhile, though, states under Democratic and Republican leadership have been jockeying for new electric vehicle and battery factories, usually by offering massive subsidies to attract the next generation of manufacturing.
U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican representing northern Kentucky, said he drove an electric car and was “bullish” on the industry, but he cast doubt on whether Biden’s goals were feasible. He argued that the electric grid couldn’t handle the increased power required, and that families would have a hard time paying for the electricity.
Charging one car for a year would require the same amount of electricity as plugging 25 refrigerators in a house, he said, indicating he got the data from the U.S. Department of Energy
“Do you think it would strain the grid if everybody plugged in 25 refrigerators in every household?” Massie asked.
“If we didn't make any upgrades to the grid? Sure,” Buttigieg responded. “If we had yesterday’s grid with tomorrow’s cars, it’s not going to work. It’s one of the reasons why we believe that infrastructure includes electrical infrastructure.”
Later, Massie said it would take four times as much electricity to keep an electric vehicle charged as a typical household uses for air conditioning in a year. (Massie did not provide a source for that data during the hearing).
“Do you think this could contribute to rolling blackouts and brownouts in areas of the country where air conditioning is basically considered essential?” Massie asked.
“Not if we prepare,” Buttigieg said. “Look, the fact that people who have electric vehicles are going to use more electricity can’t be a reason to give up. The idea that America is inferior to the other countries that have figured this out just doesn’t sit well with us in the administration.”
Rep. Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, suggested administration officials were pushing Americans to buy electric vehicles to avoid surging gas prices. But Perry said that electric vehicles were too expensive for most families to afford. Citing the Kelley Blue Book, Perry said the typical new electric vehicle cost about $55,000 even after federal subsidies.
“What do you plan to do about that cost, other than subsidies,” Perry asked Buttigieg.
“Nobody I know – certainly not me – thinks that all or even most Americans can easily afford electric vehicles,” Buttigieg said. But he said the prices of electric vehicles are coming down, with a 2022 Chevy Volt starting as low as $26,595
Several years ago, he said, he and his husband bought a hybrid plug-in with 15,000 miles on it for $14,000.
“We’re close to the point – and may actually be there on certain models and under certain circumstances – where the extent to which your car payment would go up is actually already outweighed by the extent to which your gas bill would go down, even factoring in the cost of electricity,” Buttigieg said.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.