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Secretary Buttigieg. Image courtesy of PeteForAmerica campaign, with color modification.

Clean Transport

Finally, Infrastructure Week Isn’t a Joke

Originally published on the NRDC Expert Blog.
By Deron Lovaas

For years everyone has furrowed their brows and declared infrastructure “crumbling,” with respected scorecards rating it mediocre and one former Transportation Secretary dubbing the U.S. “one big pothole.” Yet so far little has happened to address the problem. That changes today as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will kick off a major effort to jump-start infrastructure investments with testimony to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Image courtesy of BYD

We’ll be watching and advocating to ensure that any new infrastructure investment is both ambitious and forward thinking, so that it doesn’t lock in our polluting past but invests in the clean, sustainable infrastructure of the future.

The good news is that Secretary Buttigieg faces a receptive audience with this committee, which is led by Chairman Peter DeFazio who has bluntly stated his intention to “finally bring our infrastructure out of the Eisenhower era.”

It’s worth unpackaging what this means. He is referring to the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, which launched decades of highway-building culminating in a vast network of asphalt ribbons criss-crossing the country. This was our big national project in the second half of the 20th century. And as with other government policies, this highway-centered program’s costs and consequences hit Black and Brown communities especially hard as my colleague Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins has written about. For decades, the cornerstone of new proposals from state highway agencies has been — surprise! — building still more highways.

But come on — it’s 2021! The nation faces different challenges, including a climate crisis, persistent systemic racism which hurts us all, as well as digging out of a job-destroying economic chasm. We are long overdue for an overhaul of national transportation policy, and it’s encouraging that Chairman DeFazio is not throwing away his shot.

Thankfully there’s already strong foundation we can build on — the INVEST Act championed by DeFazio and others last Congress (click here for a bill summary). This is the most climate-friendly transportation bill ever, and it would get even better if amended with proposals including the GREEN Streets Act.

The INVEST Act is supported by a big-tent coalition of people and groups, including NRDC and our ally Transportation for America, a group bold enough to withhold support for new transportation funding in the absence of historic reforms.

Now is the time for Secretary Buttigieg and Chairman DeFazio to build on this progress. And there are a few priorities that we all should be able to agree upon:

  • Public transit systems need substantial investments to upgrade and expand them;
  • Biking and pedestrian pathways must be built and made safe so everyone can feel comfortable getting around outside of a car;
  • Electric vehicle charging stations need to be incentivized and built so that we can transition to zero-emitting vehicles on our roads;
  • Affordable housing is needed near transit or pedestrian-friendly pathways so everyone can benefit from new growth;
  • And, we need to clean up the toxic air pollution coming from trucks, buses and other heavy-duty vehicles by transitioning to non-polluting vehicles.

Image by CleanTechnica.

Electrification of our vehicles and transportation infrastructure is especially important. That’s why, on the same day Secretary Buttigieg lays out his vision with T & I, an unprecedented group of electric-vehicle associations, transportation advocates and environmental groups including NRDC launched the Coalition Helping America Rebuild and Go Electric or CHARGE coalition. This new big-tent initiative made up of 37 groups proposes scaling up electrification based on a set of general principles and specific policy recommendations including:

  • Developing incentives for transit agencies to prioritize operation of transit service using electric fleets according to air quality, health, or other environmental justice-related indicators;
  • Provide funds for installing electric vehicle charging infrastructure systems for all types of vehicles, from scooters to cars and trucks; and
  • Create a new purchase incentive for new, used, or repowered zero-emission school buses and trucks to lower the upfront cost, accelerate the production and deployment of hundreds of thousands of zero-emission school buses and trucks nationwide, and help fleets of all sizes decarbonize.

We need a 21st century package of investments that corrects the errors of the past and puts on a trajectory toward zero-emission mobility. Thankfully the leadership in the White House, Transportation Department and Congress recognize this fact. Let’s get to work and make it happen.

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