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CA to Vastly Increase Investments in Zero Emission Vehicles and Infrastructure

G Line electric bus charging at North Hollywood station. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

The final budget bill of the 2021 California legislative session, S.B. 170, includes some hefty investments in areas that need them, particularly in housing and zero emission vehicle (ZEV) infrastructure and incentives, among other programs.

While the investments are made possible by this year’s unexpectedly huge budget surplus, not all the money will come from the general fund. There is also new revenue from cap-and-trade, which has seen robust auctions lately, as well as other funds such as legal settlement money from vehicle manufacturers Daimler and Mercedes Benz, who were caught cheating on emissions tests.

For example, the state will invest $3.9 billion over the next three years to encourage and increase the use of ZEVs, including building charging infrastructure and encouraging manufacturing of vehicles and charging equipment. According to the state, California is already home to 34 ZEV-related manufacturers and more than 360 ZEV-related companies – and in 2020, ZEVs became the state’s number one export.

California intends to invest in pushing this market forward from all sides, to increase economic opportunities and jobs, to help bring down the costs of deployment, and to increase end-user participation.

The investment plan, a final version of which will be decided at some point soon, is a massive investment new by the state. includes:

    • $2 billion over three years for heavy-duty ZEV vehicles and charging station, including transit buses, school buses, and short-haul trucks.
    • $1.2 billion over three years for passenger ZEV adoption and transportation equity, in the form of “clean mobility for disadvantaged and low-income communities.” This includes $400 million over three years to expand the Clean Cars 4 All and for “a suite of clean transportation equity projects.” There is also $525 million allotted to the Clean Vehicles Rebate Project, and $10 million for electric bike incentives.
    • $407 million for zero-emission rail and transit, for equipment purchases and infrastructure.
    • $250 million to the Clean Transportation Program, which gives grants to strengthen and expand California’s ZEV manufacturing.
    • $25 million for “zero- and near zero-carbon fuel production and supply
    • $5 million for workforce training and development

At a recent announcement on the package, the heads of several state agencies called these investments “transformative,” “unprecedented,” “absolutely needed,” and a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to shift California’s transportation system away from fossil fuel dependence.

But note that the hard-fought-for $10m incentive for electric bikes – a potentially transformative purchase for many people – is receiving a relatively token amount compared to the billions being spent on keeping the existing transportation system in place while merely substituting electricity for fossil fuels. This is despite the growing body of research showing that merely switching every driver over to an electric vehicle, without making deeper, more difficult changes to how people travel, is not enough to solve climate problems, let alone congestion or road maintenance issues.

While the heads of the California Air Resources Board, the California Energy Commission, and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development were expressing unadulterated enthusiasm for the proposed investments, the transportation sector expert was a bit more cautious.

“This budget package is the kind of bold action needed to dramatically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and accelerate the transition to zero-emission technologies,” said California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) Secretary David Kim. But, he cautioned, zero emission vehicles “are not a silver bullet when it comes to reducing GHGs in transportation and meeting our state’s ambitious climate goals… Along with vehicle technologies, we also need to encourage greater mode shift, reduce our dependence on driving, and reduce vehicle miles traveled. This is the transportation demand side of the equation that goes hand in hand with ZEVs.”

That will require big investments in public transportation, including these ZEV investments.

Said Kim:

CalSTA is playing a key role in advancing zero-emission buses and rail. …Working with Caltrans and a number of regional rail and intercity bus operators, we are advancing battery and fuel cell passenger rail locomotives, zero-emission multiple unit trains, and fuel cell intercity buses that can provide long-distance, zero-emission public transportation options beyond the range currently offered for these services. We are also investing in the fueling and charging infrastructure necessary to deploy these vehicles.

Meanwhile a coalition of groups working on clean transportation and environmental justice have also asked the CEC to make sure transit gets a big chunk of this money.

In a letter to the CEC [PDF], Earthjustice, Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and others advised:

Our transit agencies are the early actors in advancing zero-emissions transportation. Many of the larger agencies have plans articulating how they will achieve 100 percent zero-emissions buses. Because they are public agencies, they are a perfect place for additional investments of public dollars.

For many transit-dependent Californians, this will be their access to zero-emission vehicles, not passenger vehicles. Electrifying transit is an extremely effective use of limited funds: it is the most mineral- and energy-efficient means of expanding zero-emission mobility while simultaneously reducing car dependence and congestion.

We are concerned that the plan does not allocate sufficient resources towards transit electrification projects. In particular, we recommend that the plan shift $46.5 million more in Year 1, $20 million more in Year 2, and $15 million more in Year 3 for transit infrastructure.

Of course, the fossil fuel industry also weighed in with the CEC [PDF]. SoCalGas wants make sure the plan includes incentives for its industry to keep using fossil fuels (renewable natural gas) as an inexpensive interim “clean energy” solution, calling that strategy “a glide path to zero-tailpipe emission technologies in the long term.”

These reminders – that electric vehicles are no panacea; that transit needs much more investment; that Californians need to reduce driving; that the fossil fuel industry will keep insisting that “cleaner” fossil fuels are better than long-term investments in actual clean fuels – should not be swept under any rug.

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