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How to ensure Biden’s climate-focused transportation plans turn out sustainable and equitable

The Biden administration’s recently released American Jobs Plan proposes to use infrastructure investment to help address climate change, while creating jobs and mitigating racial and economic inequities in the United States. Transportation is expected to play a major role in that effort; of the $2 trillion package, about one-third, or $621 billion, is devoted to surface transportation.

The plan’s focus on transportation’s climate change impacts is critical: Transportation is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and the sector accounts for almost one-third of all carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Due to larger vehicles, a growing population and more people driving, transportation emissions have grown by 24 percent since 1990, even as fuel economy has increased on average, and as the electricity sector has shifted to more sustainable power sources like wind and solar. 

Biden’s plan would make important investments in transportation infrastructure. But the details of how the plan would be implemented — which still need to be hammered out by lawmakers transforming it into legislation — will determine whether it is equitable in ensuring all Americans have access to safe, affordable transportation while also taking meaningful action to address climate change.

The American Jobs Plan could make headway in improving transportation’s climate impacts

The plan’s surface transportation elements prioritize the development of a modernized, electrified mobility network. Over eight years, the plan would devote $85 billion to transit agencies, $80 billion for intercity rail improvements and $115 billion for roadway improvements and safety.

Those figures stand out for two reasons: First, they would represent roughly a doubling in annual federal expenditures on transit and a quadrupling in average spending on intercity rail. The current federal transportation program allocates more than three times the funds to highways as to transit and rail. This proposal would reverse that ratio, allocating almost twice as much to transit and rail as to highways.

Second, the roadway funds, for the first time in a federal infrastructure package, would encourage “fixing it first,” meaning renovating existing roadways. The plan makes no mention of funds to build new roads, though the exact language remains to be worked out by Congress. Better rail and bus alternatives, combined with choosing to invest in maintaining the existing road system rather than expanding it, could result in less driving overall.

Less road use would ultimately mean less carbon into the atmosphere and fewer particulates going into peoples’ lungs — not only because of less pollution coming from tailpipes, but also because of less brake and tire wear, a major contributor to lung disease.

The plan would also direct $174 billion to vehicle electrification. Those funds would help families replace their internal-combustion cars with electric ones, while funding 500,000 charging stations, 50,000 transit buses, many new electric school buses, and an electrified federal fleet, including for the U.S. Postal Service. This element of the plan would reduce the carbon impacts of the existing transportation system, replacing diesel and gas power with electricity generated by renewable sources.

Additional strategies could ensure transportation infrastructure is sustainable and equitable

The proposed expenditures would be inadequate to fully shift the nation to a sustainable transportation network by 2030, and a larger federal contribution would be necessary to ensure transit options are effective nationwide. But the surface transportation elements of the Biden infrastructure plan point in the right direction in terms of creating a mobility system that is less polluting and offers U.S. residents more options to get around.

In hammering out the details, policymakers can consider several strategies to ensure any new federal infrastructure plan is as sustainable and equitable as possible:

Prioritize any roadway investments on existing systems to make space for other ways to get around

The U.S. has expanded the roadway system at a far faster rate than the transit system over the past century. The result has been increasing carbon emissions from car and truck use, plus sprawling living environments that are less sustainable than the denser communities where transit historically worked best. By focusing any roadway funding only on maintaining the existing system, rather than building new roadways, policymakers could make room for better walking and cycling conditions and encourage space for bus and rail service.

Ensure transit funding allows communities to invest in both capital improvements and in operating support

Some cities, like New York, have a century-old transit system that is desperately in need of repair, such as by automating signals, which will speed up service and improve reliability. Others, like McAllen, Texas, have inadequate local bus service that few residents can rely on to conduct their daily tasks. Federal investments that allow cities to apportion transit funding to both capital and operating costs would ensure funds meet the range of residents’ needs nationwide.

Work with states and local governments to achieve consistent, effective outcomes

If federal lawmakers invest in better transit and reduce spending on new roads at the same time that cities and states expand highways, the result would be a less sustainable mobility network. The various levels of government need to cooperate to identify how they can combine investments to generate pollution-reducing transportation.

Design policies to build racial and economic justice as a core element of the mobility system

A century of car-dominated infrastructure investment has resulted in inequitable growth patterns that reinforce injustice, depriving lower-income families and people of color access to mobility. New spending should prioritize their needs by targeting investments to these communities and ensuring they have a leading voice in where funding goes.

The American Jobs Plan has a long way to go before being approved by Congress, signed into law by the president and implemented. But with the right details, and with additional funding to meet the nation’s full mobility needs, the plan’s transportation infrastructure elements could help produce a more sustainable and equitable nation.

Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, and transportation. Follow him on Twitter: @yfreemark.

Tags Climate change climate emergency

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