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Transportation Sector Ripe for Transformation, Federal Officials Say

Top officials from the departments of Energy and Transportation reiterate that both the federal infrastructure law combined with the climate legislation can make U.S. transportation cleaner, greener and more equitable.

An electric vehicle charging overlayed on wind turbines.
Transportation and energy officials stress the mobility industry is in the throes of being reinvented, on a scale not seen in more than a century.

The Biden administration, through two sizable pieces of legislation addressing infrastructure and climate, has set aggressive goals to build out some 2 million public electric vehicle chargers by 2030, greatly advanced the adoption of EVs through incentives and provided the most federal funding for public transit in history.

“We’re building something for the future. We’re re-inventing the economy around renewable energy. And the last time we did this was, like, 1900, around fossil fuels,” said Gabe Klein, who heads up the newly formed Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, speaking Jan. 19 at the Micromobility World Conference.

“It’s a big, big job, and big risk, and there’s a lot of people in the government, not just me, that are working on all of this. But, the president set an aggressive goal. And I think we can do it.”

The Joint Office of Energy and Transportation was formed to serve as “this blueprint [that] allows for the cooperation across government,” said Jennifer Granholm, secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, speaking earlier this month at the Transportation Research Board conference in Washington, D.C.

This coordination is what it will take to reorient the transportation sector toward a new electrified future, say officials, adding it will require coordination among energy, utilities and other sectors working together.

“I think the biggest challenge is going to be getting the energy departments and the utilities and the DOTs to all work together quickly. It’s not that they don’t want to work together. They just don’t necessarily know each other that well,” said Klein.

The public policy needs to be developed and coordinated with cities as well as rural areas because the needs, and even cultures, differ.

“There are challenges inherently — there are tensions — and that’s why we have to serve everybody,” said Klein, adding that residents in rural, exurban areas need to be given the opportunity to have a cleaner transportation system.

The issue of transitioning EVs in rural and exurban areas is one U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also seemed sensitive to.

“Because of how electric vehicles code, politically and culturally, they might not be seen as obvious candidates for this work,” said Buttigieg, also speaking at the TRB conference, as he called to mind the somewhat caricatured image of EV drivers as well-to-do liberals on the East and West coasts.

“If you think about it, in rural areas, you have longer distances, which means better potential gas savings. And, you have more people living in single-family homes, which means the opportunity to charge at home,” Buttigieg pointed out.

“We really need to continue to have a strategy that fits all of these different geographies, meets them where they are,” he added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.