Electrifying Transportation—a 'Moonshot' Well Within Our Reach | Opinion

Electrifying transportation has been described as the next "moonshot" moment for America.

And much like President John F. Kennedy's challenge 60 years ago for the United States to claim a leadership role in space, electrification is an urgent choice worth making. Doing so will align our country behind a goal that is entirely within our reach and can be influential in addressing climate change.

With nearly 30 percent of carbon emissions in the United States produced by the transportation sector—three-quarters of that from roadway vehicles—the connection between infrastructure, climate and public health is well understood. And, with a variety of available approaches—from electric vehicles (EVs) and zero-emission fleets, to high-speed rail—this sector also presents the greatest opportunity to reduce emissions that lead to global warming.

Driving electrification forward requires a two-pronged approach.

At the local level, cities must prioritize strategies to accelerate transit bus electrification and convert government fleets to zero-emission vehicles. This advances vehicle electrification, and significantly addresses equity in transportation by providing health benefits related to reducing emissions in low-income communities where bus and fleet terminals are often sited.

On a national level, we must create a network of electric vehicle rapid charging stations across the country that can support the growing number of personal EVs which will require more than just at-home or at-work charging. This new network will spur innovation and private investment supporting electrification of other vehicle classes, including medium and heavy trucks.

Electric vehicles are displayed
Electric vehicles are displayed. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Congress is debating a $1 trillion national infrastructure upgrade that includes $7.5 billion to build out 500,000 public charging stations by 2030. Its approval would be transformational, and give the federal government an important leadership role enabling it to advance electrification in other ways, including:

—Encouraging interoperability standards in provisioning charging infrastructure for rapid charging, reducing range anxiety and other barriers to EV sales while focusing resources and network designs for all classes of vehicles;

—Making public rights-of-way available for charging infrastructure;

—Promoting policies that provide flexibility and incentives for new and emerging technologies, such as inductive charging lanes, along with flexible network procurement models that allow for public-private partnerships.

The federal government can also lead by electrifying its own gas-guzzling fleets. Electrifying government vehicles would support emission reductions in communities across America, and building out the charging infrastructure needed for these vehicles can also be made available for use in underserved or rural areas which may be more limited in terms of available forms of charging infrastructure.

The speed at which the government can replace its aging fleet will depend on funding and private sector partnerships but accelerating this transformation could be influential in incentivizing EV uptake and supporting electrical grid transmission and distribution improvements to supply low carbon to no carbon electricity.

Finally, as part of the efforts to expedite fleet conversion efforts for state and local government, we must pursue policies that enhance and streamline permitting processes for projects that focus on decarbonization, reducing hurdles that can delay the benefits of electrification. Existing projects, for example those involving bus rapid transit (BRT), can quickly integrate zero emissions vehicles.

Taken together, these factors make the case for the "historical moment of urgency and plausibility" evoked by President Kennedy in 1961. His statement, made so long ago, is remarkably prescient when considered in the context of today's dangerous challenges posed by climate change

Now, as then, we have developed the ability to aim higher and achieve this massive undertaking. It's time to make electrification a national priority.

Jennifer Aument serves as chief executive of AECOM's global Transportation business.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.