Connecting state and local government leaders
In many ways they’re in uncharted terrain as they plan for a $5 billion influx of federal funds to create a national network of electric vehicle charging stations.
State and local officials should get an idea in the coming weeks of how the federal government plans to roll out one of its biggest programs for building a national electric vehicle charging network.
Every state has submitted a proposal for how it plans to fulfill the national requirements, but the federal government is still firming up guidelines for the five-year effort.
With the program at a critical moment, Route Fifty is providing this summary on where it stands and what issues still need to be resolved.
How much money are states getting from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to build EV charging stations?
The new infrastructure law created the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) formula program, with the goal of distributing $5 billion over five years to create a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle chargers along highways.
The federal government will distribute that money to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico based on predetermined formulas. In order to get their allotment, though, states and territories must first submit a plan to develop charging infrastructure in their jurisdictions. All states and territories turned in their first year’s plan by the deadline last month.
“The on-time submission of every single plan demonstrates the widespread commitment from states to build out EV charging infrastructure to help accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, create good jobs, and combat the climate crisis,” the Federal Highway Administration said in an August statement.
Separately, the infrastructure law sets aside $2.5 billion in competitive grants, which will be focused on serving rural areas and other underserved communities. The Biden administration is expected to provide more details about that program later this year.
Why do states have to submit plans for their charging networks?
One of the goals of the infrastructure law is to create an easy-to-use network of charging stations that drivers can depend on, regardless of where they are or what kind of vehicle they are driving.
Currently, many vehicles use different connections to attach to chargers. Plus, charging companies have used proprietary payment methods, rather than the pay-at-the-pump system drivers of gasoline-powered vehicles are used to. Charging stations sometimes even use different units when setting prices, with some using kilowatt-hours like an electric meter on a house and others relying on minutes the vehicle is hooked up to the charger.
“Currently,” the FHWA explained in June, “there are no national standards for the installation, operation, or maintenance of EV charging stations.”
“Wide disparities exist among EV charging stations in key components, such as operational practices, payment methods, site organization, display of price to charge, speed and power of chargers, and information communicated about the availability and functioning of each charging station,” it added, in a notice of proposed rulemaking.
The infrastructure law included some requirements that states must meet to receive their formula funds for electric chargers. But the FHWA filled in more details about those requirements in the proposed rule, which is not yet final.
The FHWA put a priority on getting chargers along interstate highways, with charging stations every 50 miles and within a mile of the highway. Each station would have at least four chargers, which could deliver power at 150 kilowatts or more.
The federal agency also wants the charging stations to accept wireless payments, whether through credit and debit cards or mobile phones, but did not require chip card readers. It called on states to limit the amount of money that the owners of the chargers could make to a “reasonable return on investment,” similar to the ways utilities were traditionally regulated.
Various state agencies have objected to all of those proposed requirements.
How are states responding to the federal program?
State officials have generally supported the overall goal of the program, even as they have opposed specific parts.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, for example, wrote in a comment letter that state transportation departments “readily support” the administration’s plan.
But the industry group asked for more flexibility from the FHWA, or at least the ability for individual states to receive exceptions to nationwide requirements.
“We ask that the proposed regulations recognize differing local needs, such as grid capacity and EV adoption levels, and industry constraints, such as the lack of materials compliant with current and anticipated Buy America requirements,” wrote Shawn Wilson, the group’s president and the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.
Specifically, AASHTO asked federal officials to clarify that state transportation departments would not have to set or regulate charging prices.
It asked for flexibility on the placement and capacity of charging stations, particularly in rural areas, because the costs to upgrade the electric grid would be high and the expected use of those facilities would be low.
The state transportation officials asked that they not be called on to maintain the charging sites for five years, as suggested in the latest proposal
“Just as state DOTs do not operate or maintain gasoline or diesel fueling infrastructure today, long-term operation and maintenance of EV charging infrastructure should not be the responsibility of state DOTs. Private entities will own, install, operate and maintain NEVI-funded chargers, both during and after the five years following installation,” AASHTO wrote in its letter. Instead, the group wrote, state transportation departments would try to pick vendors that would be able to keep up the charging infrastructure for five years or more.
Some states have raised other questions, such as whether they can get a waiver to install chargers at interstate rest stops, where commercial activities are generally prohibited (unless they were grandfathered in).
Have cities weighed in?
The federal program is directed toward state governments, which handle the majority of surface transportation money coming from Washington. The fact that the initial funding is focused on fast chargers (rather than slower chargers that could be plugged into a home outlet) on interstate corridors also means that much of the money would be directed outside of urban areas.
But Mayor Frank Scott, Jr., of Little Rock, Arkansas, said that the approach could undercut the Biden administration’s goals on racial equity. The administration has publicly committed to spending 40% of federal grants to disadvantaged communities, noted Scott, who is also the president of the African American Mayors Association.
“A long-standing concern of many of our member-mayors is that when formula programs like NEVI have historically been directed to states, our cities do not get our fair share of the funding. The result being federal funds contributing [to] – and in some cases worsening – existing disparities,” he wrote.
“We believe that any minimum standards for NEVI must require that before states receive final approval for their plans and receive funding from FHWA and DOT, they demonstrate how they will comply with ensuring that 40% of the EV infrastructure that they are seeking to build are located in communities of color,” Scott added.
The Biden administration said it hoped to approve all of the state plans for their electric vehicle charging networks by Sept. 30.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.