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USPS plans to replace about 160,000 delivery trucks. Only a fraction will be electric

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Postal Service plans to replace its aging fleet of gas-guzzling trucks with new gas-guzzling trucks and a few electric vehicles. WHYY's Susan Phillips reports 16 states have sued to block that plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE STARTING)

SUSAN PHILLIPS, BYLINE: This hulking white postal truck in Philadelphia is among more than 140,000 on the road that get an average of 8.2 miles to the gallon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK DRIVING AWAY)

PHILLIPS: It has no air conditioning, no airbags, no anti-lock brakes, and it's likely more than 30 years old. Mike Foster is with the American Postal Workers Union, which represents the mechanics who fix the trucks.

MIKE FOSTER: Some days, it's an exercise in futility. Other days, it's an exercise where you're robbing Peter to pay Paul. You often will find that the mechanics and the technicians are taking parts from one vehicle in order to keep another vehicle in service.

PHILLIPS: Everyone agrees the postal fleet needs to be replaced. Foster says electric vehicles would cut air pollution, especially in places already suffering from bad air quality, like poor communities and communities of color. Charging stations at postal facilities could also provide a national network for public use and, at the same time, help the Postal Service with additional revenue.

FOSTER: We believe that the electric vehicles are going to certainly be the wave of the future. Now, the question is, is that how soon will the Postal Service come into the future?

PHILLIPS: The Postal Service signed a contract last year for 165,000 trucks. The majority would be gasoline powered. After planning to purchase just 10% electric, Democratic members of Congress pushed back. So it upped that number to 20% electric vehicles. Still, those members and climate activists say the majority should be electric. Lennox Yearwood from the Hip Hop Caucus led a protest outside the Postal Service headquarters in D.C. in April.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LENNOX YEARWOOD: The time is now to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PHILLIPS: The Postal Service's Victoria Stephens told members of Congress this spring that switching to EVs is too expensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICTORIA STEPHENS: We found that the benefits are not enough to overcome the higher cost over the 20-year life of the vehicle.

PHILLIPS: But the Environmental Protection Agency called the Postal Service's environmental review of the plan seriously deficient. And a Government Accountability Office says the service based its analysis on flawed assumptions - underestimating fuel costs on the one hand, while overestimating the cost of electric batteries and electric vehicle maintenance. Led by Trump supporter and postmaster general Louis DeJoy, the Postal Service didn't even consider emissions reductions as a cost saver.

Scott Hochberg is an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

SCOTT HOCHBERG: I think what we've seen is that Louis DeJoy is concerned about cutting cost above all else, and that can lead to a skewed view when you have to take into account the longer-term impacts of these decisions.

PHILLIPS: The Center for Biological Diversity, together with the Sierra Club, sued the Postal Service. It's one of three pending lawsuits. Hochberg says the Postal Service didn't even begin to conduct its environmental impact statement until after it had already signed a contract for the vehicles - something he says is a clear violation of federal environmental laws.

HOCHBERG: The consequences of this are huge. The current plan locks in pollution to every American community for decades.

PHILLIPS: Hochberg says an accurate environmental review would show economic benefits for purchasing 95% electric vehicles. The lawsuit argues for the court to stop payments on the new vehicle contract until a new review is done. Recently, Postmaster General DeJoy said he would file an amended environmental impact statement, indicating the Postal Service may be open to ordering more EVs. For NPR News, I'm Susan Phillips in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Phillips