CoMotion LA '22 - Keynote Conversation: Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg and Gabe Klein


On December 7, USDOT announced Notice of Funding Opportunities totaling almost $2.3 billion. TPR excerpts this keynote discussion from CoMotion 2022, featuring USDOT’s Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenburg and the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation’s Executive Director, Gabe Klein, moderated by CoMotion’s John Rossant. The pair break down how the Biden administration is taking an “all of government” approach to energy and transportation infrastructure. Trottenberg and Klein elaborate on how the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program is moving the needle on EV infrastructure in states across the country. A full video of the panel can be found here.

John Rossant: I am so excited to be here this morning with Polly Trottenburg, the Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Transportation, and my good friend, Gabe Klein, who's the Executive Director of the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation.

When I think about it, this is such an extraordinary moment we're living through in this country. If I think back to 41 years ago, Ronald Reagan got on the podium outside, before his inaugural address in Washington, D.C., and talked about government being not the solution, but the problem.

It seems like that's so distant now, and we have a very activist, courageous government. It's almost a return to the Kennedy era, where we have the best and the brightest. Don't let that go to your head, Gabe or Polly.

At the heart of it is, of course, The Infrastructure Actthe Inflation Reduction Act, and the Department of Transportation with an absolutely inspiring secretary and incredible team. You're doing amazing things.

I want to kick off with some news that many of you may not be aware of. Just a few hours ago, President Biden signed an MOU to aim for 100 percent zero emission for medium and heavy duty trucking and buses by 2040, with a targeted floor of 30 percent zero emission by 2030. This is just another example of this interventionist, activist government doing very good things. Polly, any quick thoughts on that?

Polly Trottenburg: It's great to be up here with you. Thanks CoMotion. It is terrific to be here on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration, which I’m very proud of.

One thing I love about this administration--Gabe and I actually got to serve together on the Biden Harris transition team--this is an administration that came in the door with an incredibly ambitious agenda. They were ready to execute on day one. I think you are seeing the fruits of that and really seeing the fruits of it in the climate space.

I have to say, we are doing incredible things on the climate front. The announcement is just one of an incredible array of things that this President has done, in some ways, most impressively working with Congress, which as we know in our political system right now is very difficult to do. Then, as you mentioned, an incredible array of executive actions, which we've done at DOT, EPA, Department of Energy, you name it.

Thank you for that great announcement. It's continuing the process of decarbonizing the transportation sector and working with our international allies. Another thing I think this administration has really started to do, again, is sort of bring back global partnership and global leadership on climate. Thank you, it's a great thing to celebrate,

John Rossant: In the joint office, Gabe and Polly, over the last year, you have been very, very focused on the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program (NEVI), to rollout high-speed, level three charging across the land.

What's next? Is it relationships with cities? From my point of view, I'm a city guy. Polly, of course, is the former Commissioner of Transportation in New York City. You're the former Commissioner of Transportation of both Chicago and then Washington, D.C. The relationship with cities is very, very important, but what's next? Are you going to focus on multi-modality, relationship with cities? Give us a hint of what's to come over the next few years.

Gabe Klein: The Joint Office of Energy and Transportation is the first time that the federal government has started an office that spans multiple agencies. Polly is my boss and so is Deputy Secretary Turk. It's really about taking an all of government approach, which I think we also saw during the transition. That was how things were going to be. They were not going to be siloed and the administration was going to look holistically at these problems, as much as practical and possible. The Joint Office very much symbolizes that.

We're doing technical assistance and coordination. We're almost like the front door to the federal government for electrification. We work closely with OSTFederal HighwaysEERE and DOT, so we coordinate a lot of activities. We're constantly evolving in terms of what's needed.

Last year, when the office was stood up, it was really focused on the NEVI program and the $5 billion for highways, because you need a national network to get over range anxiety and make people feel like electric vehicles are not just as good as an ICE powered vehicle, but considerably better.

Now, with $2.5 billion in corridor and community grants--these are discretionary grants versus formula funds--there's this opportunity to get really interesting and creative.

Yes, shared mobility and multi modality, but I would say more than anything, it's focusing on the outcomes for people first, and then figuring out how electrification, electric charging, and electric vehicles fit into that.

I think we know that putting the cart before the horse and just focusing on the technology, even amazing technology, in a silo is not necessarily going to benefit the maximum number of people. With the Justice 40 initiative, which also was very clear to us, in the transition, that this was serious.

We really want to serve everybody, and not everybody's gonna own a car. It's not necessary to do a one for one switch in urban areas. I talked to the Blink CEO yesterday, and he was adamant about when we start getting into urban areas and home charging, the majority of the charging can’t be level two charging, you need level three, but you don't need it everywhere for every use case.

John Rossant: $2 billion here, $5 billion there, it starts to be some real money at stake here. There are a lot of funding pots at USDOT, in particular, but also now at EPA, DOE, and other agencies of the federal government. Sometimes I wonder that there are cities and states who may not be able to take sort of full advantage of this. How should they be thinking about tapping these resources? Are there ways you guys can help?

Gabe Klein: I can start and just say that in addition to working with DOT and DOE, we also are working closely with the EPA, on the $5 billion. We're constantly having to expand our expertise. By the way, we work with like 10 of the 17 national labs, so we have a lot of very technical expertise.

We're also ramping up to figure out how to help states, municipalities, cities, and reservations think about procurement? How do you structure public-private partnerships? It could be that some states say, they want to buy this as a service or they want to operate it differently as a public-private partnership. I would defer to my esteemed colleague on all the different funding pots. 

Polly Trottenburg: I'll give a bigger picture answer on that. DOT is implementing almost 50 new programs; the Department of Energy is implementing 60. It's an extraordinary volume of programs.

I know there was talk about how can we better harmonize them all. We would love to and we're trying to do as much of that as we can. We're combining some of our funding notices. The challenges is, a lot of these programs are congressionally mandated and they tend to have their own rules and have certain members of Congress and certain committees have proprietary interest in them.

We have also hired a whole technical assistance group, led by the wonderful Maria Zimmerman, who I'm sure a lot of folks in this room know. We are hitting the road. We are going all over the country, targeting communities large and small, helping people work through our requirements.

I'll just give one example. One of our most popular discretionary grant programs is the RAISE program. Left to our own devices, when we drafted up our Notice of Funding Availability, with all the legal things that are needed and all the approvals, it clocked in at 90 pages. I asked the question of is there any way we can get that down? We chopped it down to like 50. This is a five-year program, so give us a couple more years and hopefully we'll even make it even more user-friendly.

 We will not succeed if we don't see that the dollars from these programs get to communities all over the country, large and small, and we are very determined on that front. 

John Rossant: Yesterday, of course, there was the news that the Democrats had lost control of the House. How will that potentially impact what you're doing? Is that something you can go on the record about?

Gabe Klein: I can say that, through DOT, there's $7.5 billion worth of funding, but we have $300 million of operating funding as well. That's no-year money, which means we can spend it as we need to. We've planned on the office being here for five years to correspond with the bill. It could be extended; we'll see. From that standpoint, our office is solid, programmed, and funded.

Polly Trottenburg: Look, the voters have spoken. The election results, were just disappointing from the Democratic point of view, obviously, to lose the House, but we retained the Senate, which, at least for us, means we can continue to get important nominees confirmed. That will be really important. We are now in the implementation phase, so having the right personnel and the right leadership is something we'll be able to continue.

As Gabe said, the exciting news about the Infrastructure Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act is that these are multi-year bills. Funding is in place; the program designs are in place. It will be up to us to do a good job of implementing them such that they will retain broad political support, hopefully on both sides of the aisle.

Obviously, the President still has the ability to bring forward a very robust rulemaking agenda. I can tell you, at least from the USDOT point of view, we are doing a lot of incredible work on rulemakings, particularly focusing on climate, but also on consumer protection, and, of course, on safety. There's a lot the executive branch can do with a divided Congress.

I also think one of the nice things we've seen about infrastructure, even in an obviously very polarized political climate, it still remains a relatively bipartisan issue. If we're going to do our jobs right, we're going to continue to get support on both sides of the aisle.

Gabe Klein: One last thing on that: I was in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Tuesday. You would think that in Tennessee, they might be into EVs or they might not be. There are more EVs to ICE vehicles, than I've seen almost anywhere. Chargers are everywhere, and they're full. I had to remind myself that VW has got a plant there now, and they just announced four giga factories in Tennessee in the last few weeks.

We also have to remember when we're talking about EVs, a lot of people here are mobility nerds like I am, but we're talking about reinventing the entire economy around renewable energy. This an economy that basically was built on the back of fossil fuels for the last 120 years. Once the politicians, it doesn't matter what color state it is, realize the fiscal impact, the jobs impact, and the quality life impact, I think a lot of those issues are going to go out the window.

Plus, this is a hockey stick. We have had a 60 percent increase in EV sales this year over the last year, 50 percent year over year from the year before, even with supply chain issues. Then, you're going to hit that hockey stick and the infrastructure that we're putting in with the states and the private sector is going to do all that work. That's going to give people the security and the OEMs and the finance industry that's nervous about utilization. All of those folks are going to fall in line.

If you think I have rose-colored glasses on, I've seen this before. People thought that cell phones weren't going to happen for 20 years. Once it happens, it happens. ICE vehicles are going to be a thing of the past and they're not gonna be worth anything.

Polly Trottenburg: One other little point to what Gabe said: part of the legislation requires all 50 states to submit an EV charging plan. The Joint Office and the DOT and DOE, were not certain red states were going to do this, but every state stepped up.

That's true in a bunch of programs at the Department of Energy or the Department of Interior. Even as we have a divided Congress, when you get to the state level, on a lot of the things we're doing on infrastructure and on investment, it is bipartisan.

Gable Klein: Actually, one of the best state plans, according to the people in my office, was North Dakota.

Polly: Oklahoma has been a huge leader too. It doesn't fall evenly along the lines you might think.

John Rossant: Of course, we've been talking about EVs and NEVI. The Joint Office, I think, has been sort of uniquely focused on the EV charging rollout, etc. How do you look at hydrogen, for example? Will you, Gabe, in the Joint Office, be involved in hydrogen? I know there's the overall plan to set up hydrogen hubs across the country, but can you can you elaborate a little bit on that?

Gabe Klein: We're focused on hydrogen. It just doesn't get as much coverage. Hydrogen, LNG, and even propane, the goal is zero emission. Hydrogen. I see Karina Ricks here; we've had conversations about this when she was at FTA. We've talked about the appropriateness of hydrogen for certain use cases, particularly very heavy vehicles. One of the issues you have is that you get into a bit of an arms race, where the bigger the vehicle, the bigger the battery. The bigger the battery, it becomes heavier and heavier and heavier.

I think hydrogen is definitely a component. That's where the states are going to decide where the money needs to be spent because we're talking about different geographies, different contexts, and different economies.

John Rossant: Let me just shift the conversation a little bit to equity. We all talk about that a lot. I'm just wondering how the rollout of this massive new electrification system across the country addresses issues like equity. How are you using it to, perhaps, right some of the wrongs of the past? Is this something that you focus on in any way?

Polly Trottenburg: I actually want to take a step back and answer that question in the bigger context. Again, as I was saying, one thing I really do love about this administration is that they are very clear on their priorities. Obviously, climate is one. If I had to talk about the two that were highest on the list: it’s climate and equity.

It has been extraordinary for me because I was at USDOT in the Obama administration. Now back again with Biden, I see an administration that essentially leaves no stone unturned in asking every question about how we take federal dollars, how we run federal programs, how we do rulemakings, how we do everything in the federal government and putting it through an equity lens.

 Gabe mentioned Justice 40, which is an exercise to focus in on something that has been an important issue in the environmental community: how do we also incorporate environmental justice into everything we're doing?

It has been, I think, extraordinary. We have been able to literally map out the communities and the parts of the country where we need to direct federal investment. We've also really been able to engage with those communities. We're not just showing pu like “we’re the federal government, we're here to tell you what you need.” We're actually there to listen and talk to them.

John Rossant: Tell us a little bit about what form that takes.

Polly Trottenburg: A whole bunch of different forms. I would say every part of our administration, from the Secretary on down, has made an effort to travel the country to go to, perhaps, parts of the countries that have not always reaped the benefits of federal investments, federal contracts, or the jobs that come with those.

I've done it myself and gone to a bunch of parts of the country to sit down and really talk to those communities. By the way, they don't always tell you what you want to hear. They don't always tell you what you think they're going to tell you.

One thing we did with all these state plans for NEVI is we required all the states to do that work at the state level and hold their feet to the fire. Some of them did it better than others, but we had a standard they had to meet about how they were going to incorporate engagement with disadvantaged communities to talk about what kind of infrastructure they needed, and also the contracting opportunities, the job creation communities, and the potential EJ impacts.

We're not just doing that for EV charging. We're doing that across not only all the DOT programs, but all the programs across the federal government. We are, sometimes, learning some hard lessons about programs we thought we were running equitably and discovering there are some things we need to change. Our eyes are opening to ways we can do things better.

Gabe Klein: Just to chime in. This is also how the administration is looking holistically at the whole problem, which sounds a little like a catchphrase. They’re looking from the standpoint of where you locate chargers, but again, what are the outcomes that we're going to bring to people? It's not just about the inner city; it's Indian reservations that have very little access; it's rural towns.

Then, it's also looking at the supply side. It's asking who's getting the opportunities to work on these things? Polly and I and Deputy Secretary Turk had a roundtable yesterday with I think about 10 companies. The two fastest-growing companies are owned by African-American millennials. I think there's huge opportunities for wealth creation, for jobs, and for workforce development.

In the Joint Office, we're doing a lot of technical assistance. We have equity people embedded in every program. We're actually looking to hire a chief equity officer hopefully next year. We're also looking at how we create opportunities for people to get jobs. Chargerhelp, which is one of the companies, 70 percent of their people are black or brown, and they're in all 50 states.

“…the exciting news about the Infrastructure Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act is that these are multi-year bills. Funding is in place; the program designs are in place. It will be up to us to do a good job of implementing them such that they will retain broad political support…” -Polly Trottenburg