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Buttigieg touts EVs at Western Governors Association meeting

Pete Buttigieg
U.S. Transportation Department

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is a big fan of electric vehicles, especially as a way to reduce carbon emissions. But he also states that with inflation and gas prices, people out West may have the most to gain from owning them.

“The longer your distances that you drive every day, the more this is going to matter to you, to get the fuel and maintenance savings of EV ownership -- if we can make sure it’s affordable and make it easy to charge up,” he said at a Western Governors Association meeting in Coeur D’Alene.

A new program called ChargeWest aims to create EV charging corridors across the Mountain West. Proposed legislation could also extend a $7,500 tax credit to buy new EVs, and create a $4,000 credit for used ones.

Still, EV costs have risen alongside gas prices. Many remain above Westerners’ budgets. And even higher prices may be on the way as economists predict a lithium shortage, which is a key part of the batteries.

Buttigieg points to the current costs of climate change, though, and all the ways it’s affecting people’s lives, and their infrastructure.

“We are seeing [climate change] in droughts lasting longer than the dust bowl, floods in Yellowstone that washed out infrastructure and closed the park, [a] mudslide in Colorado that closed roads and shut down rail,” he said.

He also pointed to 115-degree temperatures shutting down transit services in Portland, thousands of cattle dying from heat stress in Kansas, and fire.

“As we’ve seen near Yosemite and with the recent tragic loss in Salmon, Idaho, lives and livelihoods across the West threatened by wildfires,” he said.

The transportation secretary did face concerns from Western governors in his visit.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little was concerned about the deadlines for using infrastructure funding, saying, “ARPA, infrastructure, some of the broadband … all of these (federal funding types) have a date certain that the money’s gotta be spent.”

“And I’m certain as we get closer, my cities, counties, highway districts, transportation departments, schools, all of them are going to say they can’t efficaciously and wisely spend this money,” Little said.

Buttigieg responded that it’s a balance between giving people enough time to find the best, most cost-effective ways to spend this money, and encouraging them to spend it before costs to build increase even more.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox was also concerned about the costs to build out rail infrastructure in the West, specifically pointing to regulations through NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act.

Buttigieg responded that there are efforts in Congress to make changes to reduce costs, while preserving the environment.

“If you can build a mile of tunnel in Denmark or a train station in Spain for less than half of what it costs to do the same thing here in the U.S., we have a responsibility to understand why and to change that,” he said.

As with any proposals to Congress, however, the road ahead for those changes isn’t certain.

One other thing Buttigieg made sure to mention was how long it was taking to get autonomous vehicles onto the market, which could help shore up trucker shortages.

“The widespread deployment of automated vehicles, which is 7 years away, has been 7 years away for about a decade. And folks are beginning to ask, ‘What’s going on?’” he said.

He was quick to note that there are concerns for the public. While he didn’t go into specifics, the concerns range from the vehicles’ programmed ethical decision-making to aggressive non-autonomous drivers bullying the AVs.

Even though about 40,000 Americans already die every year in car crashes, Buttigieg says it can be hard to swallow any deaths tied to a new technology.

And as always, he says regulations are another hurdle.

“Think about it: the state DMV deals with the license, whether the driver is qualified. Our department deals with the vehicle safety standards. So we don’t really have a paradigm for what to do when the car is the driver,” he said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.