Biden’s Build Back Better bill would speed up conversion to electric mail trucks at struggling USPS

A $6 billion part of Biden's Build Back Better bill would go to making up to 165,000 U.S. Postal Service trucks, about three-quarters of which would be electric.
A $6 billion part of Biden's Build Back Better bill would go to making up to 165,000 U.S. Postal Service trucks, about three-quarters of which would be electric.
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WASHINGTON – Congress is trying to deliver an oversize package to the U.S. Postal Service: roughly $6 billion to accelerate the electrification of the agency's vehicles by the end of the decade.

The money, tucked into the Democrats' Build Back Better bill of social spending programs being negotiated in Congress, would represent the most ambitious step to decarbonize the federal fleet and provide a down payment on President Joe Biden's efforts to confront climate change.

Transportation makes up 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other sector, and gas-guzzling Postal Service trucks – some more than 30 years old – comprise nearly one of every three vehicles operated by the federal government outside the Pentagon.

The new trucks – as many as 165,000 – will be larger, more suited for the Postal Service's transition from a letter-centric agency to one focused on parcels to adjust to shifting economic trends. Dubbed "Next Generation Delivery Vehicles," they're projected to start hitting neighborhood streets in 2023 under a contract the USPS awarded to Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Defense, a company that manufactures military vehicles. The $6 billion in the Build Back Better plan would help speed production of the mail trucks.

The trucks will be equipped with 360-degree cameras, air conditioning, advanced braking and air bags, extras designed to improve safety for drivers and vehicles. Over the past decade, hundreds of mail trucks have caught fire.

Oshkosh Defense was awarded a multibillion-dollar, decade-long contract to produce Next Generation Delivery Vehicles for the U.S. Postal Service.
Oshkosh Defense was awarded a multibillion-dollar, decade-long contract to produce Next Generation Delivery Vehicles for the U.S. Postal Service.

U.S. taxpayers will foot the cost for the Postal Service, which is otherwise self-funded and perennially in debt. A modern fleet is expected to reduce fuel and maintenance costs, a welcome development for an agency that reported a net $9.2 billion loss in 2020.

James O'Rourke, professor of management at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, called the proposal "a very big deal" for the Postal Service and its customers.

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Equally important, he said, is the bipartisanship between Democratic lawmakers, led by California Rep. Jared Huffman, who put the legislation together, and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee and former GOP fundraiser who has sparred with lawmakers over postal policy.

"It's an uncommonly important demonstration of cooperation and collaboration between Republicans and Democrats," O'Rourke said. "They have reached across the aisle to say, 'Something that we really regard as beloved, and terribly important, is facing failure. And we ought to step up and do something.' This isn't gonna fix everything. But it's a very nice first step."

A decade-long push by climate activists

Climate activists have pressured the USPS for the better part of a decade to retool its fleet.

The proposal in the Build Back Better Act would require at least three-quarters of the vehicles purchased to be electric. The remaining could be traditional gas-powered trucks. O'Rourke expects many of those would be 18-wheelers carrying heavy loads that battery-powered engines are not as well-equipped to handle.

The real game changer, he said, would be a ban on the Postal Service from buying any non-electric/non-zero emission medium or heavy-duty vehicles after Jan. 1, 2040, a plan Huffman introduced in his own bill.

Huffman said the Postal Service under DeJoy has been transitioning far too slowly toward electrification, especially given the speed at which its delivery competitors have deployed the technology. Even with the $6 billion infusion, Huffman worries the USPS contract that allows for the production of gas-powered vehicles undercuts the climate goals.

Lawmakers want the U.S. Postal Service to use more electric vehicles.
Lawmakers want the U.S. Postal Service to use more electric vehicles.

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"Everyone knows we need to do this. All you have to do is look at the private fleets and what have they done. So you've got Amazon and FedEx, UPS. They're all just doing this on the business case," Huffman told USA TODAY. "And the outlier is the U.S. Postal Service under Louis DeJoy that has decided it wants to buy a new generation of internal combustion vehicles. That will literally be the last ones on the road 15, 20 years from now."

The electrification of the postal fleet would build on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed Friday.

The measure would provide $7.5 billion to build thousands of electric-vehicle charging stations around the nation and upgrade the power grid to accommodate the expected influx of battery-operated cars and trucks. Additional billions are slated to electrify transit vehicles and school buses.

Consumers are slowly trading their vehicles powered by internal combustion engines for ones with batteries. The Build Back Better Act has $13.5 billion to support charging infrastructure in publicly accessible locations, including outside apartment buildings, workplaces and underserved areas.

Michael Miller has been delivering the same rural USPS mail route in Gallia County, Ohio, for the past 30 years. Some of his route consists of dirt and gravel roads for over a mile just to deliver to two houses. Mail carriers are in many ways a lifeline to their rural communities. They don't just deliver letters and magazines, but also lifesaving medicines and packages from Amazon and FedEx that wouldn't otherwise make it.

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The USPS is perfectly suited to electrification, said Jonna Hamilton, policy director for the clean transportation program with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Routes are short and structured so the Postal Service can "right-size" the battery for each truck. The frequent engine idling, which wastes gas and spews carbon, is not an issue for electric vehicles. And they all return to a central depot at night to recharge.

"So it costs them to install that charging infrastructure upfront, but we know where all these vehicles are," she said. "They are a perfect case for electrification."

And the Postal Service will save money.

"Electric vehicles have fewer moving parts. You need to do less maintenance. There are no regular oil changes, and you're using electricity as a fuel, which is much cheaper," Hamilton said.

Most of the trucks will be built in South Carolina

The contract Oshkosh was awarded in February to build the "Next Generation Delivery Vehicles" has been a source of controversy.

The contract is the first part of a multibillion-dollar, 10-year effort to replace the Postal Service fleet, one of the world’s largest with more than 230,000 vehicles. Approximately 190,000 of those are used to deliver mail six, and often seven, days a week in every U.S. community.

“The NGDV program expands our capacity for handling more package volume and supports our carriers with cleaner and more efficient technologies, more amenities and greater comfort and security as they deliver every day on behalf of the American people," DeJoy said when the contract was awarded.

In June, Ohio-based Workhorse, a competing bidder that specializes in electric vehicles, filed a formal complaint against the Postal Service's award to Oshkosh, citing unspecified issues. That challenge was withdrawn in September. Members of Ohio's congressional delegation also raised concerns, saying the contract didn't go far enough in requiring the percentage of vehicles that had to be electric.

Oshkosh announced it would produce the vehicles in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, instead of its home, union-friendly state of Wisconsin. The decision will translate to a $155 million investment and more than 1,000 new jobs, according to the South Carolina Department of Commerce.

Letter carriers load mail trucks for deliveries at a U.S. Postal Service facility in McLean, Va., on July 31, 2020.
Letter carriers load mail trucks for deliveries at a U.S. Postal Service facility in McLean, Va., on July 31, 2020.

Oshkosh Defense chooses South Carolina for USPS delivery vehicle manufacturing, 100-person technical center in Oshkosh

But it's left some hard feelings in the Badger State.

Bob Lynk, president and chairperson of United Auto Workers Local 578 and a 12-year employee of the Oshkosh plant, called the decision to build the trucks in South Carolina "baffling" and harmful to the families of Wisconsin's surrounding Fox Valley who rely on the facility's jobs.

"After decades of working together to build the company’s reputation nationwide and recruit a talented and trustworthy workforce and after proving ourselves again and again on the production line, the writing is on the wall: Oshkosh Defense is disregarding the union workforce and, what’s even more upsetting, the community which has embraced the company for decades," he wrote in an opinion column for the Oshkosh Northwestern.

Lynk plans to join UAW leaders set to testify Wednesday at the USPS Board of Governors to protest the company's decision not to build the vehicles in Wisconsin. They're likely to raise concerns with the board that the agency’s procurement process violated federal environmental laws though they did not lay out specifics.

The company plans to establish the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle Technical Center in Oshkosh, which will be staffed by more than 100 employees who will provide engineering and program support for USPS vehicle manufacturing.

John Bryant, president of Oshkosh Defense and executive vice president at Oshkosh Corp., said the company evaluated sites in multiple states, including Wisconsin.

"South Carolina was the highest ranked location in meeting those criteria and gives us the best ability to meet the needs of the USPS over time," Bryant said in a statement emailed to USA TODAY Tuesday.

Build Back Better in limbo

Though Huffman sees the funding as a major opportunity to revive the USPS, the money might never arrive.

Congressional Democrats who control Congress continue to wrangle over the Build Back Better bill, which remains stuck on Capitol Hill. Liberals are pushing the $1.85 trillion measure, which would expand social programs and climate-related provisions. Moderates worry about the scope of the bill and its potential addition to the national debt.

That has Democratic leaders in the House scrambling to pass something soon and send it to the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Friday that she expects action by the end of November, saying it would be a "Thanksgiving gift for the American people."

Even if the House acts soon, minefields await in the Senate where potential opposition from moderate Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona could scuttle the measure. Both have expressed reservations about the size and scope of the $1.85 trillion measure that could lead to major changes from what the House passes.

It's not clear whether the electrification of postal vehicles would survive in the legislative back-and-forth or if there's enough momentum to pass it as a separate bill if the larger bill omits it or fails altogether.

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O'Rourke said the money would be an important victory for the Postal Service, which has suffered from dwindling revenue made worse by the pandemic, a mass exodus of letter carriers burned out from an increasingly thankless job and an erosion of public trust in the agency's reliability amid slower delivery times and rising costs.

The USPS won't be able to use the $6 billion to defray the cost of raises, health insurance payments or new buildings. It couldn't use it to pay down debt, at $188 billion and climbing, O'Rourke said.

"But it's going to give them some pretty cool new trucks, and they are electric so that helps the environment. It helps the manufacturer (create) American jobs," O'Rourke said. "But if this bill fails, it just makes a bad situation worse."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's Build Back Better bill would help fund USPS electric trucks