Trump ‘Buy America’ review delays cleaner buses, trucks

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A Trump administration review of “Buy America” requirements for iron and steel has frozen a pot of federal money meant for local governments trying to clean up their vehicle fleet emissions.

The holdup originates with an April 2017 White House executive order directing agencies to reassess their Buy America enforcement and maximize use of U.S.-produced iron and steel.

The Federal Highway Administration’s Buy America policies require all iron and steel incorporated in local projects to be produced in the United States.

In a notice one year after Trump’s order, the FHWA acknowledged that it had not found any auto and truck makers that used only U.S.-made iron and steel and issued waivers for 151 local and state projects. That accounted for 955 garbage trucks, school buses, street sweepers and other heavy-duty vehicles.

Funds from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program, or CMAQ, can pay for up to 80 percent of those new vehicles.

But U.S. transportation officials have given no word of how they might subsequently interpret Trump’s Buy America order. And that’s upset plans by city and state officials to replace older, diesel-burning engines with plug-in electrics and vehicles with other fuel sources, including natural gas.

Alleyn Harned, who directs the Virginia branch of the Energy Department’s Clean Cities coalition, said cities there had put aside CMAQ requests for about $1.4 million in funds, or 300 fleet vehicles.

“They’re pausing projects,” he said. “They’re pausing the transition to cleaner domestic fuels.”

The FHWA did not respond to requests for comment.

Under the Obama administration, the FHWA also halted projects early on, said Ken Brown, a consultant for Transportation Energy Partners, a nonprofit that works with 90 Clean Cities coalition members.

The agency eventually relented, requiring only that final assembly of the vehicles occur in the U.S.

The final-assembly requirement was also cited by the FHWA when it cleared the backlog of funding requests in April, pleasing transportation officials and alternative-fuel trade groups that took it as a sign that the administration might begin approving more recent Buy America waivers — or at least clarify what the new policy would be.

Some of those groups have resumed petitioning the FHWA, asking it to continue using the Obama-era criteria until it finalizes new rules.

“These are U.S. companies doing final assembly in the U.S., with U.S. workers,” said Rick Sapienza, who works with North Carolina cities on air quality projects through North Carolina State University’s Clean Energy Technology Center. “Beyond that, you’re helping diversify your energy demand, and the fuels you’re using — electricity, propane and natural gas — are domestic fuels. It’s keeping with the intent of Buy America.”

Brown estimated that the federal review had caused officials in states across the country to shelve or delay orders for about a thousand cleaner vehicles.

“What we’ve been arguing is, it’s fine to review this, although we don’t think you’ll find a practical approach to vehicles that requires 100 percent of iron or steel,” he said. “But in the meantime, keep with the old process so you can keep these projects going forward. That has fallen on deaf ears.”

Some air quality and transportation planners are trying to scrounge together enough money from state-level sources to keep fleet transitions going.

Chris Klaus, senior air quality manager at the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said many of the 44 Dallas-Fort Worth-area planners that make up the body were hoping to use funds from the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP), combined with money from EPA’s Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) program.

“It’s hard for me right now,” he said, adding that officials from states that lacked programs like TERP were likely having an even tougher time.

“We’ve got a Buy America waiver request for probably $2 million in vehicles, and because we’re waiting for it, half of these things have fallen through,” he said. “Then add in calls for projects we didn’t do, or projects we passed on, or future opportunities we’re trying to weigh.

“We’re reviewing fiscal year ’20 and beyond, and I’m asking staff, ‘Are we going to set aside CMAQ money to clean up fleets?'” added Klaus.