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Finding the Funding for Rural Outposts in America’s EV Grid

To accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, every burg along our “blue highways” is going to need a place for motorists to plug in. For states, that means tax credits, matching grants or similar incentives. But we’re not talking big money.

An EV charging in front of a rural building.
I grew up in a remote rural wheat-farming community in eastern Washington state, population 600. Our high school student body was so small that we played football with teams of eight. Since then, my hometown’s main street has been hollowed out as residents and farmers took their business to regional centers like Spokane, Pasco and Moses Lake. The gas station is gone; only the local farm-supply co-op has fuel pumps.

An electric vehicle motorist would be stranded if their battery ran out there. The same scenario applies to EV drivers whose destinations include the great outdoors. Although the lodges at Yosemite, Yellowstone and the other big parks will have nearby EV charging stations, the wide open spaces between them and metro cities have few. And even though EV battery life is increasing markedly, many purchasers will still experience “range anxiety” — the fear of being stranded along a country blacktop.

Which brings us to “blue highways” and the small rural towns they connect. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s the title of William Least Heat-Moon’s 1978 autobiographical travel memoir that described the old pre-GPS paper maps showing rural roads in blue lines. For the EV transition to accelerate, we need to electrify the blue highways with charging stations at every little town and village on those roads. City folk who can’t plan ahead beyond 20 miles can then take comfort that if their battery is getting low they won’t be stuck in the middle of nowhere for too long.

Although there is a race already underway in the private sector for startup companies to provide for-profit vehicle charging stations in populated areas and along the interstates and other major highways, and most gas stations and motorist rest areas along those roads will eventually have charging facilities, it’s not obvious today that the economics will work in the hinterlands.

That raises the question of who will underwrite the safety net for roaming EVs. If the cost of installing and servicing a charging facility will never be recoverable from user fees, then we have a classic public finance problem. EV charging stations are what we call a “merit good”: a societal benefit that deserves a public subsidy because its value exceeds the price a consumer will pay. These facilities also have “positive externalities” if they promote lower carbon emissions and hence a global environmental benefit.

This call to action does not require government funding where private enterprise will meet consumer demand. And believe me, in many places it will: Charging stations will inevitably come to most service stations, McDonalds, Denny’s and 7-Elevens along major urban and suburban roads. It’s the edge cases, where no profit or consumer lure is to be had, that we must address as a nation. On a very practical level, we don’t need Big Government to solve this problem; instead, a modest urban-rural partnership will suffice.

Big Government did get the job done under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, when the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) performed a similar task by subsidizing the electric lines that finally connected farms and villages to the nation’s power grid. We now need a 21st-century REA, albeit on a smaller, disaggregated, localized scale. The new federal infrastructure bill allocates $7.5 billion to quintuple the current number of publicly accessible charging ports to half a million, and it prioritizes rural and other underserved areas. But with just about every major automaker pledging to phase out internal combustion cars over the next decade and a half, some of those who study the issue are advocating a goal of close to five times that number by 2030.

That’s where the states need to step in and help their rural communities with funding to pay for these charging facilities. At the very least, tax credits, matching grants or similar incentives should be a conspicuous part of state budgets in the next few years. And where states are too cheap to pay the bill, counties can dig in for their own local taxpayers’ benefit. A penny of property tax can go a long way in this case. A federal matching program for the states and counties might be the optimal policy and implementation strategy.

The faster-charging stations that are needed will cost more than household varieties that take many hours, but in remote areas we don’t need to fund $40,000 Level 3 facilities to subsidize instant gratification. Should a stranded motorist need an hour of Level 2 charging time to get back on the road after learning a lesson about advance planning, the driver can be grateful that taxpayers have put up the modest capital outlays to install a rescue station.

If the municipal leagues jointly, or the Institute for Public Procurement or the National Association of Counties’ public-private-partnership center, were to put out a collaborative RFP for a standardized bare-bones Level 2 EV charging platform for their rural members, you can bet that competitive and affordable pricing offers would flood in from well-funded entrepreneurs looking to quickly scale up their businesses nationwide. This industry is now in the land-grab stage, and the private sector is hungry for franchises. This endorsement would be a brand manager’s dream. If you’ve seen those maps touting a cellphone company’s coverage area, it’s the same idea.

We’re not talking big money in the grand scheme of things. The expense of installing a multi-vehicle charging station in a small town is a pittance compared with the costs that Roosevelt’s REA underwrote to wire up the surrounding farmland in the 1940s. Across America, there are 9,000 towns with populations under 1,000; the National Association of Towns and Townships clearly has a leadership role to play. If you count unincorporated hamlets that also should become part of the EV charging grid, that number doubles; it’s the places that lack a municipal budget and a tax base that will most need a financing facility. But all told, it’s nine-figure millions, not billions, to pay for this tiny-town safety net.

If there were ever a political opportunity for blue big-city environmentalists to show their red rural cousins that they have common interests and to offer a helping hand, this would be it — a small price to pay for the peace of mind of knowing that a recharge for your buggy is only a stone’s throw away.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Girard Miller is the finance columnist for Governing. He can be reached at
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