It’s easy to ignore the signs posted at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge alerting drivers to the three-ton (6,000 pound) weight limit for vehicles traversing the East River crossing. What’s less easy to ignore is the C- grade assigned to the nation’s infrastructure, by the American Society of Civil Engineers in their 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure – released this week. The good news is that for the first time in 20 years the nation’s overall infrastructure no longer rates a D. Bridges received a C, even though the society calculates funding needs to increase by nearly 60% annually. Roads got a D because over 40% of the system is in “poor or mediocre” condition.
But these lackluster grades are all the more worrisome when you consider the projected coming tidal wave of electric vehicles (EVs). That’s because they typically weigh an estimated 20% to 25% more than an internal combustion engine counterpart. If the U.S. doesn’t swiftly boost spending on roads, the increased wear-and-tear caused by these heavier vehicles will likely cost motorists even more than the $130 billion they already spend on repairs and operating costs.
Since 2010 a cumulative 1.7 million EVs have driven onto American highways, with 1.4 million added in 2020 alone. That number is estimated to grow to an additional nearly 7 million annually by 2025, according to Frost & Sullivan.
A new Tesla Model X tips the scales between 6,700 and 6,900 pounds, making it a heavyweight compared to, say, a Suburu Outback, which weighs 5,000 lbs. The reason for the heft is of course Tesla’s lithium-ion battery pack – the vehicle’s energy supply. Depending on the model and configuration (there are at least four different versions), that battery can weigh up to 1,800 pounds.
The flagship Model S’s battery also weighs in at about 1,200 pounds. The two electrodes, cathode and anode, and the liquid electrolyte that allows the battery to charge and discharge are the three key components. While the future addition of silicon may replace the graphite anodes and increase the length of a charge by about 20%, the weight issue will remain.
There’s little debate that EVs are heavy. They’re basically battery packs on wheels. And they do fulfill the dream – at least from the driver’s point of view – of limiting C02 emissions. But to solve one problem, EV adoption is aggravating another one.
Americans love their big, heavy cars. And while both political parties say they want to spend money to repair and replace aging infrastructure, passing a potential $2 trillion spending bill will be a mammoth test of bipartisan deal making. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently said “Now is the time to be aggressive,” but Republican Senators Bill Cassidy, (Louisiana), and Shelley Moore Capito, (West Virginia) have called the Biden administration’s effort of bipartisan outreach on legislation just “rhetoric.”
A major source of highway funding is the federal Highway Trust Fund. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that tax revenue flowing into the fund will total about $43 billion in fiscal 2020. More than $25 billion of which comes from gasoline and related fuels taxes, with the remainder from levies on diesel, kerosene, plus taxes on various heavy vehicles (not consumer ones).
While EV owners may pay fees and taxes on a state-by-state basis, they more or less avoid the gasoline tax as they blissfully whiz by gasoline stations.
And yet, more than 230,000 bridges in the U.S. need major repair work according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s (ARTBA) analysis of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2019 National Bridge Inventory. The estimated price tag to do all that work is $164 billion, based on average cost data published by the Federal Highway Administration. That doesn’t even account for the more than 80,000 bridges ARTBA says need to be completely replaced.
When it comes to the weighty issue of vehicles, there’s plenty of heft to go around. For example, a Cadillac Escalade filled with passengers and luggage is a 7,400 to 7,700 pound behemoth, while a fully-loaded Ford F-150 comes in at a svelte 6,000 to 7,510 pounds. These are just two examples of the macro trend towards bigger, heavier personal transport icons.
It wasn’t always so. Between 1975 and 1981, average vehicle weight dropped by a fifth, from over 4,000 pounds to about 3,200 pounds. But as pickups and SUVs became the de facto ride of choice for most of the driving public, weight has steadily increased. The weight of an average new sedan actually dropped 13% since 1975, but people are buying fewer sedans. Meanwhile, the weight of an average new pickup has increased nearly 30%.
The political irony is that even as past and present U.S. administrations and lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, have battled for more money to repair aging bridges, tunnels and highways, those same political leaders have been pushing tax subsidies, credits and mandates for renewable-fuel-powered alternatives.
As a result, people who see that nice hunk of more-environmentally-benign steel, glass and plastic in the driveway as heralding a new era of electric-powered transportation should also get ready to pay up for more concrete, rebar and asphalt. Otherwise, we all may have nowhere to go.