Now’s the Time for Bold Investments in Transportation

We are confronted with two historic challenges as we emerge from a pandemic: the legacy of racism and the threats of climate change. Transportation policy and investments are a pivotal part of any climate plan, and we also have a chance to reconnect Black and brown communities divided and disadvantaged by past ill-conceived infrastructure investments. Thankfully, there are a suite of technologies and policies that can help transform transportation so it is a greener, more just sector.

The question is, as we reach the midpoint of May, are there “policy vehicles,” or bills, to carry them over the finish line this Congress?

The answer, frustratingly, is yes and no. President Biden has proposed an infrastructure measure that is historic in its ambition and the House of Representatives is working on improving an ambitious proposal it passed last year. But the Senate committee is considering a measure that is, unfortunately, not up to the task.

First, the good news. President Biden has set the bold goal of halving heat-trapping pollution from its 2005 level by 2030 and outlined a proposal in the American Job Plan that will jump-start efforts to get there. The American Jobs Plan would help us slash emissions thanks to its huge investments in rail, public transportation, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Another piece of good news is that last summer the House of Representatives passed the Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America Act or INVEST Act bill. This bill, as colleagues wrote in its wake, is possibly the greenest transportation bill yet. It includes improvements to the planning provisions of transportation law that direct states to measure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of their planning. It is frankly shocking that states aren’t already doing this. The time is way, way overdue in which this should be a standard part of transportation planning. It also includes substantial investments in low-carbon transportation modes as well as electrification infrastructure for our vehicle fleet. And it includes substantial funding for climate resilience, a desperate necessity given climate change already here and en route since we have delayed so long in solving this crisis.

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House is working on a new bill which is likely to resemble the INVEST Act, although it could be further improved if amended with smaller, explicitly climate-focused proposals being added to the hopper (e.g., the GREEN Streets Act, the BRAIN TRAIN Act, the Green Transportation Act, as well as additional forthcoming bills).

The bad news? The Senate picture is harder to make out. Unlike the House, jurisdiction is divided between a few committees, with the Environment and Public Works Committee (or EPW, which handles what has traditionally been the largest section, the bill’s highway title) setting the initial tune. And it’s possible what it unveils will be harshly, destructively discordant with the President’s new climate goal. The only guide we currently have as to what they might unveil is America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA) offered in 2019.

ATIA would NOT get us on a trajectory towards halving heat-trapping pollution. While it is nominally greener than previous transportation laws, it falls well short of what we need. This bill is, in short, a highway-expansion-centered, high-pollution proposal at odds with the President’s climate goal. The Senate bill’s handful of green sections are eclipsed by its many status-quo provisions. It keeps us in the same old rut transportation policy has been in since the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, when all federal leaders envisioned was coast-to-coast ribbons of pavement. Transportation for America does a good job at hammering at it for this, noting for example that the climate title accounts for less than 4% of the funding in the bill.

 In sum, three major policy vehicles are on the racetrack: The American Jobs Plan, INVEST Act 2.0, and EPW’s highway title. And they all must pass a new test: Do they help us halve climate pollution by 2030, or do they take us on a crash course instead? Two of them are on the right track; the legacy Senate EPW bill, however, is not.

NRDC’s analysis shows we can achieve President Biden’s goals and avoid the worst of climate change. It will be no mean feat, as you can see with the help of a handy policy scenario-building tool called the Energy Policy Simulator (EPS) courtesy of Energy Innovation, LLC and the Rocky Mountain Institute. A good place to start in looking for reductions, using the Sutton rule, is the single largest source of emissions: Transportation. You can turn the dials on different policies in the EPS, and in transportation the main ones are vehicle efficiency improvements, vehicle electrification, and shifting travel to low-carbon means (e.g., bus, train, biking, walking). And as you turn the dials it becomes crystal clear: We must do all we can.

We have lost too much time debating measures that lack the ambition we need. The President and Congress must develop a transportation program that addresses our climate emergency. Anything less than that is unacceptable.