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Utah electric light-rail train in Salt Lake City. Photo by Kyle Field.

Air Quality

A Transportation Law for the 2050s, Not 1950s

Originally published on NRDC Expert Blog.
By Deron Lovaas

Our transportation system is enormous. More than 4 million miles of roads, 140,000 miles of freight rail, 21,400 miles of intercity passenger rail, and more than 180,000 miles of public transit such as bus routes and commuter rail lines. All of this is run by groups of people organized into state departments of transportation, 420 metropolitan planning organizations, and about 4,000 transit agencies.

Image from The Our Transportation Future coalition.

The federal role in all of this? Huge sections of the U.S. Code, especially Titles 23 (highways) and 49 (public transportation and rail) contain authority for federal spending, delivering about one-fifth of the resources needed to build and maintain the system. And national lawmaking, administrative policy, and investments influence the direction and shape of this huge system based on national priorities and goals. The law must be reauthorized regularly, usually every 3–5 years, by Congress.

The latest installment, a new $547-billion INVEST in America Act that is getting marked up in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee this week, is a new, game-changing landmark for this law. It’s a big, visionary down payment on the President’s American Jobs Plan, and should be passed into law in its entirety.

The INVEST Act is also a strategic, forward-looking restructuring of the overall program. Enacting this bill would prepare and retool our transportation system for the challenges we face between now and 2050—and beyond. In terms of its scope and historical importance, it’s on par with the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, which set the course of our nation’s highway system.

How does the bill achieve this? First of all, legislators propose measuring how the entire transportation system achieves pressing goals, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, to ensure that the billions of dollars of federal investment are used to support those goals. The INVEST Act also tackles climate change by incorporating climate and resilience into transportation planning and project selection processes, making changes including:

  • Adding “combating climate change” and increasing resilience to national goals for highways and national policies for public transportation and intercity rail (including a requirement that Amtrak move to 100% electricity from solar and wind by 2030);
  • Adding greenhouse gas reductions and climate resilience to metropolitan roads and transit planning;
  • Requiring a national measure of “greenhouse gas emissions per capita on public roads” with target-setting that can’t be regressive;
  • A requirement that projects of national or regional significance be selected for funding in part based on their resilience and greenhouse gas reduction potential;
  • Adding examination of greenhouse gas emissions reductions techniques and tools as one of the purposes for many federally funded analysis and research programs;
  • Adding “addressing climate change” among project selection criteria for new intercity rail grants and funding a new rail network climate change vulnerability assessment.

This is a monumental feat by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members and staff. While it often seems that people see the federal transportation program as just a set of buckets of money that’s doled out to states and metro areas, there is — or there should be — a national strategy with aligned goals for recipients of our federal taxpayer money. And the good news is that this bill also focusses on other pressing goals besides tackling climate change, such as reconnecting communities divided by highways and bridges through a new $3-billion grant program, “fixing-it-first” by including specific requirements that our $1 trillion deferred maintenance and repair backlog be tackled before building new highways, delivering more access to low-income communities in urban and rural America, supporting housing affordability, and developing a 21st-century transportation workforce and plenty of good jobs (including for disadvantaged business enterprises).

In addition to new policy guiding all federal transportation investments in states and metropolitan areas, the bill delivers new competitive grantmaking or formula funding programs to fuel moves in these new directions. Overall, the bill delivers proportionally more investment in public transportation at $109 billion—more than any previous transportation bill, ever — and a historic $95 billion for intercity rail. It also includes a set of discrete grant programs to drive innovation and performance across the transportation system:

  • A major carbon pollution reduction program with incentive funding for high-performing states and a disincentive for low-performing ones as well as the option to invest up to 10 percent in transit operations;
  • New programs to increase access to high-quality transit, including a one-year (2022), $1 billion program to address “transit deserts” by increasing bus service to underserved communities, including operating assistance, and an expanded program to support planning for transit-oriented development, including affordable housing, administered by a new Office of Transit-Supportive Communities;
  • A set of new community-focused programs, including a $2.4-billion program to support local infrastructure investments that support national goals (including greenhouse gas reduction); and a $1 billion grant program specifically to fund local projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and
  • An increased focus on safety for all road users, including a $1-billion grant programs to connect active transportation networks and a $400 million wildlife crossing program.

Funding is included to speed the transition to electric vehicles, including a $4-billion clean corridors program to deliver charging infrastructure and a sizeable increase in funding for zero-emission transit buses.

The bill is also replete with other changes that align it with current national, state, and metropolitan goals, such as expanding eligibilities for existing program funding and providing preferential federal shares of funding for projects based on their performance vis-à-vis important goals. Critically, it also avoids unnecessary rollbacks of environmental reviews and public input like the more than 60 which Congress included in the last three surface transportation reauthorizations.

To be clear, there is room for further improvement, for example by boosting public transportation investment further including delivering $20 billion per year in operating assistance, which a recent analysis shows would deliver huge benefits to riders nationwide. Keep an eye out for amendments that would deliver sufficient operating assistance, especially the “Stronger Communities through Better Transit Act” co-sponsored by a growing list of Representatives including Hank Johnson (GA-4), Adriano Espaillat (NY-13) Jared Huffman (CA-2), Ayanna Pressley (MA-7), and Jan Schakowsky (IL-9).

Overall, the INVEST Act is a historic, visionary proposal. It breathes new life into the transportation debate and offers a real down payment on the President’s American Jobs Plan. Now is the time to move forward with this exciting bill.

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NRDC is the nation's most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.3 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists, and other professionals.


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