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Transportation commission chair says Oregon should spend more to entice e-car buyers


“We’re not moving the mode split that quickly on transit, so we’re not reducing congestion, and we’re not reducing carbon… I think there is a chance to see a more dramatic move by people with cars.”

— Bob Van Brocklin, Oregon Transportation Commission chair

Van Brocklin at March 10th meeting.

Late last week the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC), a governor-appointed body that sets policy for the Oregon Department of Transportation, signed off on how to spend $412 million in federal funding via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Toward the end of a meeting on March 10th, OTC Chair Bob Van Brocklin spoke at length about why he thinks Oregon needs to do more to encourage electric car ownership. The remarks caught my attention because they reveal how one of Oregon’s most influential transportation policymakers feels about the future of mobility and the role cars should play in it.

Given Van Brocklin’s position of influence in Oregon transportation circles, his outlook carries a lot of weight.

Below is a version of Van Brocklin’s comments (emphases mine) from the end of the March 10th OTC meeting that have been edited for clarity and brevity (For context, keep in mind ODOT has committed $100 million to EV charging — $50 million from the IIJA and $50 million from state sources. Van Brocklin is also signaling he wants to spend some of the $82 million set aside in the “carbon reduction” category for electric car subsidies.):

“On EV charging and carbon reduction monies that are directed, this is this is where I’d like to put down a little bit of a flag… we have to transition from today to tomorrow. And specifically in electric vehicles. This is coming. The auto manufacturers are going there, you see it in this bill with EV charging and carbon reduction right in the middle of this bill. That’s $134 million dollars just in our portion of it. Oregon’s ready to go there.

I was talking to a couple of people at DEQ and learned that Oregon is currently one of the top states in the country in converting [to EVs] and this is the moment to listen to Oregonians. My understanding is that our conversion rate on going from fossil fuel to electric vehicles is among the very top states in the country and growing rapidly. And I think we need to be in front of that wave.

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I think Oregonians are tuned into two things: One is they like the natural environment of the state. This is not a new thing. Oregonians have been that way forever. And they want to do something personal about it. And the thing they can do that’s personal to them is they can change the kind of car they drive. Now those are the people that can afford cars. I know we have the whole transit, etcetera, whole range of things we need to be doing for people that either don’t have cars or can’t afford them. You need to continue all of that. But I think… we’re not moving the mode split that quickly on transit, so we’re not reducing congestion, and we’re not reducing carbon. I applaud TriMet for transitioning to electric buses, it’s expensive and it’ll take time, but I think there is a chance to see a more dramatic move by people with cars. And I think we need to get behind that.

I think we need to invest the $50 million in EV charging and maybe some of the carbon reduction money or some state money or something else. I would love to see us in for $100 million on electric charging and that won’t even touch what we’re going to need to do. We need to do hundreds of millions in order to cover the state. The other thing I think we need to explore is what we can do to incentivize those transitions… the sooner we’re moving more people who can do it into electric, the sooner we are establishing the first generation of electric cars that will then be the used cars that people who can’t afford the new car can buy. And I think you have a tipping point there. I’m not saying everyone’s gonna own an electric car. But if you go from 5% to 40% You’re gonna make you’re gonna make a bigger impact on carbon than anything else we can do.

Because [emissions are] coming out of the tailpipes of these internal combustion engine cars and trucks. That’s where it’s coming from. So we need to get people doing another choice and people that won’t go on and won’t ride a bus, won’t ride a light rail, won’t get into a vanpool, won’t do any of that stuff. I think they’re showing us this already, they’re willing to change. But this is for me a moment on that directed money for EV charging and carbon reduction to lean heavily into electric vehicles, both on the charging side and on the incentive side and move people off [gas cars] easy. If you want to be in a car, that’s a gas car, I’m not saying anything critical. I’m just saying we need to change the ratio.

I am just trying of follow the trend line. The trend line is it’s coming, the trend line is we’re a leading state, the trend line is we have people that want to [buy an electric car]. And I think we want to we need to facilitate that choice for those who want to go there. In the same way we facilitate choices for people who don’t in terms of other investments we’ve made.

And the driver for me is, we’re sitting here with his $134 million dollars in the directed funds between EV charging and carbon reduction. And I want it to be part of a strong commitment to offering EVs. I almost think of it like a mode split. You could be on transit or you could be in a car; or you could be in transit or you could be in an EV, or you could be on an ICE [internal combustion engine car]. No judgement, just options.

This is a moment and this money is here… So then it’s just how much of the $82 million in carbon reduction we should use to incentivize and maybe beef up the EV charging program statewide.”

You can hear his full comments from the meeting here.

It’s notable how dismissive the chair of the OTC is about the state’s ability to encourage car-drivers to hop on a bus, light rail or other non-driving option, yet he is very enthusiastic about wanting to keep them in single-occupancy cars. A major reason Oregonians drive so much is because all the other options are woefully underfunded while the OTC continues to give ODOT a blank check to expand highways and perpetuate a system based on driving cars.

Instead of using this funding opportunity to go big and start creating a system where fewer people need to use single-occupancy cars, Chair Van Brocklin is saying he wants to further tilt the scales toward driving.

The problem with this approach is illustrated by a graphic I shared on Twitter a few weeks ago: It reminds us how, except for emissions, e-cars share all the social, economic and environmental costs of their fossil fuel brethren:

Electric cars are a piece of what we need to transition to a cleaner energy future, but we should be wary of how big that piece is. If Oregon wants to continue to be seen as an environmental leader and if the OTC wants to remain relevant, they must get over their love-affair with traditional, single-occupancy cars regardless of what is under the hood.

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