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What a Green New Deal could mean for freight

Photo credit: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

President Donald Trump paid little attention to infrastructure in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, but what he did say may have gotten the attention of Democrats in Congress who support a Green New Deal:

“I know that Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill, and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting-edge industries of the future,” Trump said. “This is not an option. This is a necessity.”

Whether or not the “cutting-edge industries” Trump has in mind includes things like electric trucks and other zero-emissions vehicles, a major environmental package drafted in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate – the “Green New Deal” – calls for exactly that.

Unveiled this morning by Congressional newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), the 14-page, non-binding resolution calls for “overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as technologically feasible,” according to the document, including through investments in zero-emission vehicle manufacturing and infrastructure, as well as high-speed rail.

Environmental groups and the freight industry agree that significant progress in electric vehicle and other zero-emissions technology will be needed for the ambitious plan, which seeks to accomplish its goals in 10 years.

“When I look at cutting-edge technologies that can be used to grow the economy, zero-emission vehicles are a really good place to invest,” Jason Mathers, Director of On-Road Vehicles at the Environmental Defense Fund, told FreightWaves.

“We want to be manufacturing solutions and driving innovation here in the U.S. and export that elsewhere, and by reducing air pollution and its effects we’re going to grow the economy by spending less on healthcare. We’ll also have a more productive workforce, and will be less vulnerable to oil markets. There’s a lot of benefit to moving toward zero-emission vehicles, especially in the truck and bus space.”

Broad environmental visions always come with a tradeoff, however, and in the freight world that often means compromising on capacity, according to Randy Mullett, founder of Mullett Strategies, a trucking and freight lobbying group.

“Whenever we pass an infrastructure bill, we assume a bunch of that federal money goes toward building lane miles,” Mullett told FreightWaves. “But if a major green initiative gets woven into everything, using a lane mile becomes more expensive, because traditional dollars are now competing for things like electric charging stations, or eliminating [inexpensive] fly ash used in concrete. If we replace extra lane miles with toll gantries and begin restricting traffic, freight rates will have to go up because the cost of using the road will go up.”

Mullett agrees that reducing pollution is an inevitable trend and a worthy aspiration, but noted that the key will be an environmental plan that “has a fungible element to allow funding for capacity expansion instead of just attempting to flip a switch towards zero emissions.”

Rock Magnan, president of Silicon Valley-based third-party logistics company RK Logistics, also agrees that reducing carbon emissions in the freight sector isn’t going away and that trying to find the best solutions can be more productive than resisting.

“It’s not really whether you believe in climate change or not, it’s about economics,” he told FreightWaves, “and if it makes sense as an industry, we’re going to be an adapter.”

In addition to initial progress being made with electric vehicles, Magnan said that in considering the less-than-truckload (LTL) industry, “you have all these truck terminals that are ripe for solar energy power – big buildings with monster surface areas.” One potential opportunity, he said, is to use that power to generate electricity for local pickup and delivery units.

Even before it’s been officially unveiled, there’s already plenty of resistance to the Green New Deal on Capitol Hill, including from the second highest ranking member in the Senate, John Thune (R-SD). It illustrates the challenge that Ocasio-Cortez and her Democratic colleagues will have trying to gain traction for their environmental goals.

In responding to President Trump’s State of the Union, Thune said, “we risk losing what we have already gained if [Democrats] instead choose to abandon this progress and cede to the far-left of their party by embracing costly policies with gimmicky names like a ‘Green New Deal.’”

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.