Transportation Opportunities for a Green New (Infrastructure) Deal

May 23, 2019

Last week, transportation and infrastructure professionals convened around the country to discuss priorities for a national infrastructure agenda. This week of events fell amidst heightened discussions at the federal level about the funding needed and the priorities for such an agenda.

While many conversations touched on opportunities to invest in resilient infrastructure or efficient transportation systems, there was a notable absence of discussion about another current major proposal of national significance: the Green New Deal resolution aimed at addressing climate change and economic inequality, of which infrastructure is a major component.

In the case of both the Green New Deal and a potential infrastructure bill, the legislative and policy specifics are yet to be determined. But both topics have spawned a broader discussion about how federal policy writ large can result in a more sustainable environment. There are numerous overlapping elements between the two movements, and the moment is ripe to catalyze on building momentum for a cleaner, more efficient transportation system in the U.S.

US transportation systems are already under strain due to heavy precipitation, coastal flooding, and wildfires associated with changing average temperatures. To mitigate additional future risk, a fundamental rethink of how we fund transportation projects and the type of projects that receive priority is needed.

Several current infrastructure proposals align neatly with environmental and climate goals. For example, assessing the life cycle costs of transportation infrastructure, prioritizing transit over highway investments in places with high or growing populations, incorporating land use into transportation decision-making, and investing in inland waterway and rail freight can contribute to reduced national transportation emissions.

Prioritizing maintenance over expanding road capacity can reduce demand for roads while also stabilizing transportation budgets. The impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund has prompted numerous hearings focused largely on determining a sustainable (in the economic sense) source of funding for U.S. infrastructure. Meanwhile states spend just as much on road expansion ($21.3 billion annually) as they do on road repair ($21.4 billion annually), creating long term financial consequences, as newly-built roads require maintenance over their lifetimes. Yet life cycle cost analysis of these roads is rarely factored into spending decisions.

Dense, multimodal places should be central in the vision of a Green New Deal and an infrastructure package. Federal funding criteria can be rewritten to encourage cities to build transit in dense places and to automatically fund projects that meet established standards, such as building bus lanes on the busiest routes. While land use is inextricably linked to the same environmental, economic, and racial justice goals outlined in the Green New Deal, this notion was conspicuously missing from the resolution’s text. Vehicle electrification alone will be insufficient to achieve the goals of the resolution, as it dismisses the widespread effects of sprawl on environmental, economic, and social outcomes.

Infrastructure legislation would also benefit from increased consideration of alternatives to trucking. The movement of freight tons is expected to increase by 40 percent through 2045, and trucks move the majority of those goods. Trucking also accounts for outsized wear to roads and greenhouse gas emissions, so increased investments in inland waterway and rail freight movement can help to reduce freight emissions.

There remains an urgent need to reduce emissions, and the transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. As discussions about how to modernize the US built environment continue, efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions at the same time should be a primary consideration. Synergies in the burgeoning discussions of an infrastructure package and a Green New Deal can be the foundation for building a clean infrastructure future in the U.S.

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