USPS finalizes plans to buy mostly gasoline-powered delivery trucks. Here’s what experts say is wrong with that.

The Postal Service will spend up to $11.3 billion on a fleet that is 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent electric

Mail delivery vehicles at a distribution center in Chicago last year. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)
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The U.S. Postal Service finalized plans Wednesday to purchase up to 148,000 gasoline-powered mail delivery trucks, defying Biden administration officials’ objections that the multibillion-dollar contract would undercut the nation’s climate goals.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy disregarded requests from the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency this month to reconsider replacing the delivery fleet with 90 percent gas-powered trucks and 10 percent electric vehicles, at a cost of as much as $11.3 billion. The contract, orchestrated by DeJoy, offers only a 0.4-mpg fuel economy improvement over the agency’s current fleet.

The decision is a major blow to the White House’s climate agenda. President Biden has pledged to transition the federal fleet to clean power, and apart from the military, the Postal Service has more vehicles than any other government agency. It accounts for nearly one-third of federally owned cars and trucks, and environmental and auto industry experts argue that the agency’s stop-and-start deliveries to 161 million addresses six days a week provides an ideal scenario for using electric vehicles.

EPA officials said the Postal Service vastly underestimated the emissions of its proposed fleet of “Next Generation Delivery Vehicles,” accusing the mail agency of fudging the math in its analysis to justify the massive purchase of internal-combustion-engine trucks.

DeJoy, a holdover from the Trump administration, has called his agency’s investment in green transportation “ambitious,” even as environmental groups and other postal leaders have privately mocked the claim. When DeJoy repeated the characterization at a public meeting of the Postal Service’s governing board this month, his remarks were met with chuckles from the audience.

DeJoy said in a statement that the agency was open to pursuing more electric vehicles if “additional funding — from either internal or congressional sources — becomes available.” But he added that the agency had “waited long enough” for new vehicles.

Environmental advocates assailed the agency’s decision, saying it would lock in decades of climate-warming emissions and worsen air pollution. DeJoy has accused Congress and climate activists of pushing the mail agency toward electric vehicles as a matter of “public policy” in the face of the Postal Service’s deteriorating fleet of “Long Life Vehicles” and dire financial condition.

Critics have responded that DeJoy’s embrace of fossil fuel vehicles will cost the Postal Service billions of dollars over the trucks’ 20-year life span.

Read USPS's decision to purchase mostly gas delivery vehicles

The first new trucks are expected to hit the street in 2023. Here are six of the contract’s most controversial aspects:

1

Spend first, study later

Before a federal agency spends billions of dollars, it is supposed to complete an “environmental impact study,” an exhaustive analysis of the transportation safety, traffic noise and environmental effects of its proposed purchase.

The most crucial component of the study is its timing: It must be completed before an agency begins spending money. It’s also supposed to be broad, studying various alternatives to reach the most practical and environmentally conscious plan.

However, the Postal Service announced its agreement to purchase the trucks in February 2021 before it started an environmental analysis, and paid $482 million to Oshkosh to begin building manufacturing facilities before the study was completed.

Biden administration officials accused the Postal Service of making its decision and then justifying it with an environmental study that relied on flawed data on greenhouse gas emissions, the cost of fuel and the cost of electric vehicles.

“When it came out,” said Adrian Martinez, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, “we realized they were either looking at the wrong things or they were totally misinformed. And whether that was intentional or not, it’s hugely problematic.”

2

No true alternatives in environmental study

The Postal Service did look at several alternatives to its 90 percent gas-powered fleet. It considered purchasing an entirely electric fleet, replacing its current vehicles with commercially available gas-powered trucks, or simply doing nothing.

But the mail agency said those alternatives were nonstarters. Some mail routes wouldn’t work for electric vehicles; they’re too long, or encounter too much extreme heat or cold. The Postal Service’s inspector general in 2009 — when EV technology was still developing — found that 96 percent of postal routes were compatible with electric trucks.

The Postal Service said replacing its fleet with commercially available vehicles would cost too much and sap productivity. Mail trucks need the steering wheel on the right side so letter carriers can reach mailboxes from the windows of their vehicles. And sticking with the old trucks was impractical, the Postal Service said, both from a business and safety perspective.

Regulators and activists had asked the agency to study more alternatives. The administration and lawmakers are considering giving the Postal Service more funding to buy electric vehicles. Biden’s Build Back Better plan, for example, would provide $6 billion for a fleet of 70 percent electric vehicles.

Biden’s spending package would give USPS $6 billion to replace dangerous mail trucks with electric vehicles

Analyzing more purchasing plans is important, critics say, because the environmental study is supposed to look beyond the fleet’s emissions or the pollution it would cause. It should also look at how and where vehicles will be deployed, argued Sam Wilson, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group.

“What would be reasonable to do would be to have a high-level scenario of 95 percent battery-electric vehicles, which matched [the Postal Service’s] own assumptions,” Wilson said. “Even a 75- or 55-percent analysis would be reasonable.”

3

A pro-gas bias

Underlying the Postal Service’s decision to buy thousands of new gas-powered trucks is its contention that it can’t afford electric vehicles. In its environmental analysis, the agency estimated that buying EVs would cost over $30,000 more per vehicle than the gas-burning alternative.

But that number has confused regulators and environmental advocates, who say the figure does not match independent cost estimates.

According to the EPA, the Postal Service used wildly inaccurate gas prices that made owning a gas-powered truck seem comparatively cheap. The agency projected gasoline costs at $2.19 per gallon and estimated that would rise to about $2.55 per gallon by 2040. But, the EPA said, by the time the Postal Service wrote its analysis, average gas prices had already topped $2.80 a gallon.

The EPA also found that after underestimating the cost of owning gas-powered trucks, the mail agency inflated the cost of EVs by not considering falling battery prices, which are gradually making electric vehicles more affordable. The result: Gas-burning trucks came out looking like a better deal — but only if most of the numbers were wrong.

4

Yesterday’s trucks

Postal Service trucks are gas guzzlers, averaging only 8.2 mpg. But they were built 30 years ago on average, and trucks have become more efficient since then. Experts say the industry standard for gasoline-powered delivery vehicles today is 12 to 14 mpg.

So environmentalists and government regulators were alarmed when the Postal Service unveiled plans for a new delivery truck that offers only a 0.4-mpg improvement over the older model. With the air conditioning running, the vehicles would average just 8.6 mpg.

USPS trucks don’t have air bags or air conditioning. They get 10 mpg. And they were revolutionary.

EPA estimates show the new delivery trucks would emit nearly 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over their projected 20-year life span, roughly equal to the annual emissions of 4.3 million passenger vehicles. Their already-low fuel efficiency rate would worsen as the trucks aged.

Had the Postal Service chosen to buy a lighter truck model — lighter by only one pound — it would have been required to meet stricter fuel efficiency standards. Instead, the agency opted for trucks that are nearly double the weight of the current ones and exempt from higher mileage requirements.

Critics have also questioned the Postal Service’s claim that new electric trucks could only travel 70 miles per charge, since the electric delivery trucks and cargo vans the Postal Service’s competitors now buy have a much longer range. The Ford E-Transit, for example, can travel up to 126 miles per charge, according to the automaker.

The Postal Service is “looking at old technology,” said Patricio Portillo of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The range of its electric trucks is “what you’d expect from an EV if you bought it five or 10 years ago,” he said.

5

The gas-to-electric flip that wasn’t

When the Postal Service announced its deal to buy new trucks, it said that even if it purchased gasoline-powered vehicles at first, the agency could later convert those trucks to battery electric power by swapping out parts under the hood.

DeJoy touted the capability to a House panel in 2021, and Scott Bombaugh, the Postal Service’s chief technology officer, praised the capability in an interview with The Washington Post almost a year ago.

“Even if we were to roll out the door with an internal combustion engine in the vehicle, we have the opportunity, the way the vehicle is designed is to allow us at the end of the life of that engine to swap in a different drive train alternative,” Bombaugh said.

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But those comments immediately raised concerns among auto industry experts. Legacy automakers have not been able to accomplish large-scale retrofits because the process is difficult, labor intensive and expensive. For Oshkosh, a defense contractor, to have developed a scalable internal-combustion-to-electric conversion program would be a tremendous development in the EV industry, experts said.

The Postal Service has since abandoned the retrofitting strategy, writing in its environmental impact statement and telling The Post that although Oshkosh can perform the conversions, the agency “has no plans to retrofit any vehicles.”

6

Financial questions

DeJoy has explained the Postal Service’s purchase of gas-powered vehicles by saying it can’t afford more fuel-efficient trucks given its perilous financial position.

But the Postal Service now boasts its best financial outlook in years. It had $22.3 billion in cash at the end of 2021, almost double the high-end estimated cost of its new trucks.

Plus, Congress is on the verge of approving a major overhaul of the Postal Service’s finances, eliminating $57 billion in existing liabilities, plus an additional $50 billion in future expenses over the next decade. The legislation has already passed the House and could win Senate approval as soon as next week. It has 14 Republican co-sponsors, which is enough support to defeat a potential filibuster.

House Republicans and Democrats agree on $57 billion USPS overhaul

Some members of Congress have urged DeJoy to use the financial flexibility afforded by the bill to invest in the Postal Service’s infrastructure. Along with delivery trucks, the agency needs new sorting equipment and renovations to its plants and office lobbies.

Even conservative groups that have praised DeJoy’s plans to buy new trucks have called on him to spend more.

“You have $23 billion or so of cash,” Paul Steidler, who studies the Postal Service at the libertarian Lexington Institute, told the Postal Service’s governing board this month. “You are projected to be break-even by 2023. If you need more funds, remember, by law, you are supposed to be self-funding.”

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