The Thruway Has Brand New Rest Stops. Where Are the EV Chargers?

They’re on their way, officials promise. But they’re years late.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   July 26, 2023
A photo of an electric charging station with an "EVolve NY" banner
The EVolve NY program was supposed to build 200 fast EV chargers by the end of 2019. It only reached 100 last fall. | New York Power Authority

Since John Lipori bought his electric car a few years ago, there’s only been one good place to charge it on his long drive up the New York State Thruway to the Adirondacks: a Walmart parking lot in Albany, where he sometimes has to wait up to an hour to plug in.

Lipori’s Audi can go 240 miles on a charge, just short of the 275-mile journey from his home on Long Island to his lake house upstate. So when a newly renovated rest stop opened in Plattekill — right on the highway — he was eager to see if it would save him the detour.

He was disappointed. The rest stop, which reopened in May as part of a $450 million revamp of all 27 service areas along the Thruway, has a new Burger King, a Starbucks, even a farmer’s market — but no new fast chargers. (Most EV chargers, installed in homes and workplaces, take hours to fill up a battery; public sites generally require more powerful, “fast chargers” that allow a driver to top up in half an hour or less.)

Five years ago, the state announced plans to build 200 fast chargers along major corridors like the Thruway by the end of 2019. It still hasn’t met that target. The lion’s share of the Thruway rest stops lack EV charging stations, and even of the 10 rest stops that have completed renovation, only four have new chargers.

Applegreen, the main company in charge of renovating and operating the rest stops, says the remaining six — including Plattekill — will get chargers by the end of this year. The company, which is owned by the investment firm Blackstone, plans to add at least four charging stations at all 27 rest stops by the end of 2025, for a total of 120 along the Thruway.

Charging infrastructure could become an increasing obstacle as New York races to achieve its ambitious climate targets. Soon, it won’t just be eco-conscious professionals like Lipori — a retired bank executive — who have to plug in their cars to drive: By 2035, New York will require all new cars sold in-state to be emissions-free.

“The state should be leading in this regard and setting the standard,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. The Thruway provides a clear opportunity to do so, she said — not only because it is state-managed but also because, under federal rules, its rest stops are the only place in the state where highway drivers can refuel without having to exit.

Providing ample charging at those rest stops could be a big step in alleviating “range anxiety” — the fear that EV drivers will run out of battery and be left stranded on the road, which continues to discourage many Americans from going electric.

That was the exact concern New York officials had in mind when they launched the evolve NY program in 2018, led by the New York Power Authority.

“People need to feel comfortable that when they leave their house and they take a longer trip that they can still charge when they are away from home,” said a NYPA executive at the time.

Adding chargers at Thruway rest stops was a central part of NYPA’s solution, and key to its promise of building out 200 fast chargers by the end of 2019. But then-Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration also had another plan in mind for the Thruway: hiring a private contractor to revamp all its rest stops. As that process got underway, NYPA’s plans for the Thruway chargers were put in limbo, said a spokesperson for the power authority. By the end of 2019 — its initial deadline — it had failed to install a single fast charger, according to a scathing audit from the state comptroller’s office.

In late 2020, the Thruway Authority finalized a $450 million deal with Applegreen to revamp all the Thruway rest stops, and delegated EV charging to the new contractor. (Officials highlight that Applegreen is paying for the project, in return for 30 years of concessions revenue.)

With the Thruway rest stops handed off to a private company, NYPA had to identify a whole new set of sites in need of rapid charging stations to meet its 200-charger goal. The evolve NY program added its 100th charger only last fall, and is now up to 135 fast chargers.

Meanwhile, Applegreen set a new timeline with the state for the Thruway chargers, adding years to Cuomo’s original deadline.

A spokesperson for Applegreen described the rest stop operator as an international leader in deploying highway EV charging and said the Thruway buildout was moving ahead as planned.

Besides the service areas due to be completed this year, “We expect the majority of the remainder of service areas to be under construction and have EV charging stations available to the traveling public throughout 2024,” spokesperson Paula Chirhart said.

State officials touted New York’s wider investments in EV charging, including a new $29 million round of funding announced last week. A spokesperson for the governor’s office said NYPA, the Thruway Authority, and other state agencies will have more than 255 chargers open to drivers by the end of this year. On the Thruway specifically, the chargers planned for 2025 will be 30 miles apart on average, a spokesperson said, noting that the target was more ambitious than a federal goal to install a charging site for every 50 miles of highway.

Indeed, by some measures, New York is near the top of the pack for EV charging. As of 2021, the state had the second-most public charging stations in the country after California, according to one report, and the third most per capita. But it slides down the list — to about 15th place — when comparing the number of public chargers to evs on the road.

And that’s without taking into account its goals for EV adoption over the next decade: New York was the second state after California to announce the 2035 deadline for all new cars to be emissions-free. Those requirements begin to phase in just two years from now, encompassing one-third of auto sales for model year 2026. New York also has a separate, long-standing goal of putting 850,000 evs on the road by 2025. (The number currently stands at 156,000.)

The state’s overall climate plan depends on the rapid transition away from gas-guzzling cars: The transportation sector accounts for nearly a third of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, and even the most conservative estimate in the plan suggests that 90 percent of cars sold by 2030 should be zero-emitting.

Charging on the Thruway is only a small slice of the infrastructure needed to keep up with those mandates.

Upwards of 80 percent of EV charging relies on slower systems, in places where cars can sit and charge all day or night. Highway-style chargers that can get drivers back on the road in 15 or 20 minutes are a small but crucial part of the market, said Gil Tal, director of the Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California, Davis.

They raise a distinct set of challenges, too — like whether the grid will be able to supply enough power to plug in all the new electric cars and long-haul trucks at peak times. (A bill passed by the state legislature in June will require the state to study the issue and identify any grid upgrades that might be needed, if Governor Kathy Hochul signs it.)

The bottom line, for Tal? Given the exponential growth in EV sales, “it’s almost impossible to install too many [charging stations] for the next five years. ... Something that was planned two years ago is already a little bit outdated.”

Lipori, for his part, is still waiting for chargers that were announced more than five years ago. For now, it’s back to the Walmart.

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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