On Monday, the Wall Street Journal ran an article headlined “Biden Plan for EV Chargers on Highways Meets Skepticism in Rural West.” It’s an interesting story about how the Department of Transportation’s new proposal for requiring electric vehicle charging stations every 50 miles may not be practical in states like Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico where vast stretches of highway extend through unpopulated areas. Public officials there, as the headline indicates, are skeptical such a measure can or should be done.
But the headline is a tad misleading, because there is not so much skepticism that it can be done than frustration that a particular decades-old law prevents it from being done and efforts to change that law have been stymied by lobbyists for interest groups. The law in question, included with the original Interstate highway laws in the 1950s, bans businesses from most interstate rest stops, which are owned and maintained by government entities, to avoid competing with exit-ramp mainstays offering motorists food, snacks, and fuel.
There are rest stops along some of the interstate system’s most desolate stretches. One such stretch described in the story is a 70-mile bit of I-90 in Wyoming between Gillette and Buffalo. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be much of anything between those two towns. But there is a rest stop almost exactly equidistant between Buffalo and Gillette in a place called Arvada, Wyoming (population 33). It would certainly be expensive to upgrade the rest area to have the infrastructure required for fast chargers, but it is by far the most promising site, and is perhaps worth the public investment to do so in the interest of encouraging EV adoption. The problem is the federal government has made it illegal to put commercial entities in those rest areas, and fast EV chargers are commercial entities. But there is basically nowhere else along that highway stretch with any electric hookup at all.
The argument lobbyists for truck stops, gas stations, and convenience stores make is that this law is still necessary to spur investment in roadside businesses or investments along interstates. This has been a fight for a couple of years now, with EV advocates and many politicians trying to get rid of—or at least rationalize—this antiquated rule and lobbyists working to keep it in place so private companies can capture the EV charging market and lucrative snacks-and-meals business that accompanies waiting travelers. Doug Kantor, the general counsel for the National Association of Convenience Stores, told the WSJ “You can’t really have businesses develop at exits if you have them at rest stops.” NATSO, formerly known as the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, argued against a carveout allowing EV chargers at rest stops because it would “not only discourage existing refueling stations throughout the country from investing in charging infrastructure, but it will signal to prospective EV drivers that they will not be able to access the same amenities and fueling experience to which they are accustomed.”
But some charging deserts don’t have any businesses—or electricity—nearby to capture that market. Rest stops are the only plausible locations. A wide-ranging 2020 transportation bill allowing for EV chargers at interstate rest areas passed the House but otherwise stalled.