Op-Ed: Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Could Be a Win for Climate, If it Can Be Leveraged to Those Ends

The newest assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released this week, was depressing. Not that it contained anything truly surprising, but it was yet another reminder of the formidable climate crisis. Transportation is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States and the transportation network is highly susceptible to extreme weather related events. Finding ways to cut transportation-related emissions while investing in resilient infrastructure needs is a top concern.

Coincidentally this week the Senate passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIB), which would increase federal investment by $550 billion in all types of infrastructure over the next five years. Not only would the bill increase the total amount funding for transportation projects by 93 percent ($274 billion), but much of that funding is going toward projects that could help cut future greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. Even with significant funding increases for highways, this represents a huge opportunity to strategically invest this into climate-friendly and resilient infrastructure. But throwing money at infrastructure, no matter what mode, will achieve these outcomes only through smart project selection and supporting policies on things like land use and operations.

Green transportation investment

The bill contains numerous provisions and programs that are targeted to help invest in what can be climate-friendly transportation. Even though some traditional programs will continue, the programs listed below represent a significant policy shift from the status quo and will undoubtedly move U.S. transportation in a greener direction. (Remember too that these dollar figures are in billions. This is serious money.)

  • Public transportation gets a $39.2 billion boost above baseline for its existing programs and new capital investment grants. This will allow for investment in new buses, rail lines, and other improvements to the existing network.
  • Intercity passenger and freight rail get $66 billion in new funds to modernize the Northeast Corridor and invest in new and upgraded lines and facilities throughout the country. This is unprecedented investment (more in one bill than Congress had provided for the Federal Railroad Administration over the previous 18 years, including stimulus and COVID aid) and could wholly transform intercity passenger rail in particular, modernizing stations, purchasing new train cars, launching new services, and enabling faster trips.
  • $6.4 billion for the new Carbon Reduction Program that will fund highway department investments in sidewalks, bike lanes, transit projects, technology, and other strategies to reduce GHG emissions. This is along with a further $4.5 billion for biking and pedestrian facilities, including dedicated money for bollards, tree canopy, and better sidewalks.
  • $1.0 billion in the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, which is aimed at funding projects like freeway removals. While this is significantly less than the $20 billion in the original American Jobs Plan, remember that removing freeways is cheap. Removal of the Inner Loop in Rochester cost only $23.6 million and the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee $25 million.
  • $12.8 billion for three separate electric buses and electric vehicle (EVs) charging programs. This is much less than the original American Jobs Plan program for charging, but there is a separate $73 billion to upgrade the national grid, which might be more important. EVs require a tremendous amount of energy: a single 100KwH car battery, which is good for about 380 miles, takes the same energy to charge as four 1000W microwaves running continuously for more than 24 hours. The current grid simply cannot handle even moderate EV market penetration, and the BIB can help enable it.
  • $12.2 billion for inland waterways and seaports. While we might not think of shipping as green infrastructure, there are few more efficient ways to move cargo and the inland waterway system is notoriously out of date. Better locks and dams might entice some higher value cargo away from trucks, and the bill also specifically funds projects to reduce emissions from truck idling at ports.

Highways still get a significant boost of funds: $93 billion more than the traditional baseline funding over 5 years. Some of this is going to be distributed through traditional highway programs, and undoubtedly some states will use or attempt to use this to fund new freeways or widen existing ones. But some states and the federal government are starting to show a loss of appetite for ever widening freeways. Recent projects that have funding and would normally be approved have encountered local and federal opposition to widening, such as in Maryland, Texas, and California. Further, much of the new highway funding is for bridge rehabilitation and other programs in which U.S. DOT and the Biden Administration have tremendous ability to set criteria and select the projects that advance climate goals and invest in resilient infrastructure. States also can target funds toward state of good repair and transfer some of their highway money to other modes, and many will choose to do this.

While the bill’s prospects in the House remain undetermined, President Biden has already invested significant political capital in its development and will likely continue to press for its passage with little, if any, changes. If this is pretty close to the final law, which seems likely, it can still be shaped to achieve national climate goals by focusing attention on the following things:

Focus on the criteria for selecting discretionary grants

The bill empowers the Transportation Secretary with broad discretion in selecting projects for over $100 billion of USDOT’s total $567 for transportation investments. Much like the RAISE (formerly BUILD, formerly TIGER) grants, USDOT has broad leeway to set criteria and metrics for evaluating projects, and the sole decision authority rests on the secretary. Eno has written that these programs need more explicit metrics and transparent evaluation. This is an opportunity to clearly state climate goals and include metrics that can prioritize projects that will have positive effects.

Focus on operations that can leverage the infrastructure investments

Building new roads and railways is important but operating them in efficient ways is critical to their success. Improving dated Amtrak stations or boosting track speeds means little if the train comes once or twice per day. Planning for and investing in frequent and convenient operations along with infrastructure improvements can drive ridership on intercity and intracity public transit and make those investments worthwhile. The same is true for highway investments: congestion pricing, demand management, and bus lanes can encourage more efficient roadway use.

Focus on the land use side of transportation

The BIB is an infrastructure bill, not a land use bill. While a new or expanded highway can enable sprawling development, its state and local land use laws that allow it. Recent analysis shows the extent of sprawling land use that occurred over the past several decades. And sprawl is hardly just related to highways: many American rail transit stations are surrounded by huge, inefficient park and ride lots. These appear even less practical given large shifts toward remote work. Given the climate crisis that is growing along with a need for more housing, climate goals can be tackled with new federal, state, and local land use policies that can leverage the infrastructure investment.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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