The Biden administration has gambled its political fortunes on a future dependent on electric vehicles.
But to make that happen, it needs the buy-in of the nation’s mayors, the local leaders acting as the backbone for the president’s vision of creating a nationwide EV infrastructure and decarbonizing the economy by 2050.
And they’re sending him a clear message: America’s cities and towns are not prepared for the electric vehicle boom.
Many of those mayors say their communities are not even close to being equipped to support growing demand for cars that run on electricity instead of fossil fuels due to a lack of charging stations, outdated electric grids and inadequate funding. All that needs to change – and soon – before more Americans feel comfortable investing in an EV and fulfilling Biden’s promise to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.
“Our residents are used to a gas station on literally every major intersection,” said Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, a Republican who says he “somewhat supports” the White House’s EV push.
“If everybody in the city tomorrow has an EV, we would have some serious infrastructure challenges,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a chicken and the egg.”
90% of Mayors Club members support the Biden administration’s push for more electric vehicles.
Strongly or somewhat support
Somewhat or strongly oppose
One mayor neither supports nor opposes the administration’s push. One mayor declined to participate.
Holt is one of 50 mayors POLITICO has assembled in 2023 to shine a light on the challenges their communities face and offer lessons they’ve learned on the job. Throughout the year, members of the inaugural Mayors Club – one from every state – are sharing their perspective on key issues that weigh on them and their peers, in both surveys and interviews. We’re hearing directly from leaders who are far from Washington’s corridors of power, representing cities and towns big and small, urban and suburban.
The latest topic we asked the Mayors Club about: electric vehicles. Mayors are on the frontlines of carrying out the White House’s EV agenda, from applying for federal grants to enticing companies to build manufacturing plants, and even down to deciding on which street to install a charging station.
Here’s what our mayors told us:
- More than 75% of mayors strongly support Biden’s plan.
- Fewer than 50% say their cities are somewhat or very prepared to support the widespread adoption of electronic vehicles:
- 1 very prepared – 2%
- 22 somewhat prepared – 45%
- 14 a little prepared – 29%
- 12 not at all prepared – 24%
- What mayors say they need to support widespread adoption of electric vehicles:
- “Charging stations in publicly accessible locations”
- “More electricians in the workforce”
- “Grid upgrades and more power sources”
- “Community support”
- “More low cost vehicles”
EV adoption poses a puzzle: Consumers won’t feel comfortable buying an EV until they have adequate access to public chargers to avoid getting stranded on the road. But cities don’t currently have enough money to incentivise wide scale adoption by constructing ubiquitous charging stations throughout downtowns, in neighborhoods and along highways.
“We don’t have the capacity because of the cost,” said Fargo, North Dakota Mayor Tim Mahoney, a Republican. “It’s just too much money.”
North Dakota has one of the lowest adoption rates in the country, with roughly 400 EV charging sites, about the same as less-populated Vermont. There are about 15 charging stations in Fargo, the state’s biggest city with a population of 128,000.
The region’s harsh winters are partly to blame: Residents are unlikely to risk driving an EV across the gigantic state in freezing temperatures, which can quickly drain a battery. There’s also the influence of North Dakota’s history as an oil and gas state, adding to many residents’ reluctance to fully embrace EVs, he added.
Costs for installing “level 3” fast-charging equipment range from $40,000 to $175,000 per port. Those can give drivers roughly 100 to 200 miles of range per 30 minutes of charging. Fast-charging options are anticipated to increase as more cities move toward electric fleets like buses and consumer demand increases. So far, most cities have opted instead for “level 2” public ports that are much cheaper to install but only supply about 25 miles of range per hour of charging.
Nearly a quarter of Mayors Club members report their cities are not prepared at all to support the growing use of electric vehicles.
A little prepared or not at all prepared
22 mayors said their cities were somewhat prepared for growing use of electric vehicles. One mayor declined to participate.
The Biden administration aims to ease that financial pressure by pumping billions of dollars into states to meet its goal of building a network of 500,000 EV chargers by 2030. Cities are bidding to get a piece of the first tranche of cash: $700 million dedicated toward putting infrastructure for electric, hydrogen, propane and natural gas fueling in places like parking lots and shopping centers.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the survey findings.
Applying for federal grants is complicated – and competitive. Groups allied with the Biden administration are helping cities navigate that process. Bloomberg Philanthropies, for example, has been holding boot camps for local leaders to help them build EV infrastructure.
“They are looking at using EV charging stations as a linchpin of a downtown economic strategy,” said Ryan Whalen, senior program manager on the Government Innovation team at Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Cities are at entirely different places with building out EV infrastructure, indicating the real potential for an uneven playing field that would put some cities at an economic disadvantage over others.
Take Chattanooga, Tennessee which is trying to position itself at the forefront of innovation as the state works to find a path forward in the shadow of abandoned coal and manufacturing facilities.
Chattanooga’s city-owned energy and telecom utility gives it the bandwidth and stability to support an EV network. The city in 2022 received a $4.5 million federal grant to create a smart charging network that would provide personalized data that can link electric vehicle users to available charging stations.
It was also one of the first in the nation to launch an electric-vehicle ride-sharing program where drivers can rent a Nissan Leaf for $45 a day.
And Chattanooga is home to a Volkswagen plant where ID.4 SUV models started rolling off the production line last year. The German company has invested $800 million into electrifying the factory and has received hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives from federal, state and local governments. Volkswagen has hired about 1,000 employees on the EV side of the company.
“Even if you’re a complete climate skeptic, there’s no oil and gas in this part of the world,” said Mayor Tim Kelly, a former car dealership owner who drives an ID.4. “This is our economic future. It’s jobs. It is a hugely promising economic vertical for us and we intend to make the most of that.”
Here’s what mayors say they need to support wide-spread adoption of electric vehicles in their cities:
publicly-accessible charging stations
more electricians in the workforce
grid upgrades and more power sources
more low cost vehicles
‘tremendous’ investments in charging
easy to apply for grant programs
Columbia, South Carolina is another southern city that has benefited from private industry investment. Scout Motors, an independent company backed by Volkswagen, plans to open a $2 billion electric truck and SUV manufacturing plant just outside of Columbia. Production is targeted to begin at the end of 2026, with the capacity for more than 200,000 vehicles made annually, supporting 4,000 or more permanent jobs.
Columbia’s leaders are preoccupied with improving the reliability of the city’s electric grid, which Mayor Daniel Rickenmann said is not currently in a state to support a surge in EVs.
“It’s one step at a time,” said Rickenmann, a Republican. “Building up the infrastructure and being prepared for it gets people more excited.”
While Chattanooga and Columbia have positioned themselves to take early advantage of government and industry investments, other cities, like Carson City, NV., are far earlier in the planning process.
The city is in the midst of plotting how to run its charging stations and leaders recently decided they didn’t want to be in the business of owning and operating them. There are three chargers on city-owned property and plans to install at least two more.
“We’re not a gas station,” said Mayor Lori Bagwell, a Republican. “We feel this can be handled by private enterprise.”
Bagwell said she has concerns about the nation’s shift to EVs, mainly over issues with the emergent technology and the need for a detailed federal plan addressing how they can operate in a state like Nevada with vast rural areas.
But she recognizes that Carson City needs to be able to eventually embrace EVs, should demand meet predictions. She believes the cars may become more popular with its residents in about five years.
“I really want to be ready to serve our residents and visitors appropriately,” Bagwell said. “That’s the trick, right? How do you match that – where’s my crystal ball?”
Three in five Mayors Club members reported pothole and road repairs as the most needed investment to improve street infrastructure.
Potholes and road repairs
Other transportation alternatives
Complicating their jobs, mayors are operating in states with entirely different attitudes toward a potential EV revolution. Decisions by lawmakers trickle down to mayors, impacting how much money and authority they have to embrace the technology, as well as the number of EVs on the road.
There’s places like California, which recently mandated that all new cars sold in 2035 and beyond are zero-emission vehicles.
On the other end, there’s Texas, where drivers buying new EVs now need to pay a $400 fee, a replacement for tax revenue generated by gasoline and diesel sales.
As EV plans materialize, mayors are also grappling with avoiding the possibility of a deep divide between urban and rural communities and their friendliness toward the technology. Mayors shared fears that EVs could become yet another policy area where rural communities are left behind while big cities absorb all the benefits.
“It’s very important that if we are investing as a state, it’s built across everything,” Rickenmann said. “That includes our smallest towns to our biggest towns.”