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The Infrastructure Bill May Not Be So Historic After All

Transportation experts say that much of the funds in Biden’s big bill just go towards highways and a carbon-intensive status quo.

Aerial view of a new road construction site.
David Crowley has big plans for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill. As the executive of Milwaukee County, Wis., he is extremely familiar with his region’s streets.

But while Crowley acknowledges the perennial issue of potholes, he emphasizes that the infusion of federal dollars could mean big changes for traffic calming.

“One of the three issues that we hear about the most from residents throughout Milwaukee County is how do we mitigate risky driving,” says Crowley, who took office during the pandemic, when reckless speeding and traffic deaths surged across the country.

“People want to feel safe on our streets,” says Crowley. “This is one of the things that [the infrastructure bill allows us] to invest in. It will be tangible for everybody to see immediately.”

The bill signed into law today includes $550 billion in new spending. The rest of it is made up of routine reauthorizations of energy, water, aviation, and surface transportation programs.

Biden is selling the act as a historic federal infrastructure investment, and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg emphasizes the progressive aspects of the bill. But it is state and local officials like Crowley who will actually determine how it is allocated.

Many transportation experts say that most of these sub-federal officials, unlike Crowley, will not spend this federal largesse on projects that encourage traffic safety or lower carbon emissions. The historic 80-to-20 percent split between roads and transit is emulated in the new spending so the lion’s share of it — $110 billion — is for highways and bridges.

Cave-In Politics

A stipulation written by lawmakers in the House would have ensured that jurisdictions repair their road systems before they expand them, but it was stripped from the bill by Senate moderates. No state department of transportation (DOT) has committed to spending federal funds on a repair-first program, although it is entirely within their power to do so.

“This was an unfortunate cave-in to politics-as-usual that was perhaps necessary to pass the bill,” writes Jeff Speck, an influential urban planner and consultant, in an email to Governing.

“Whatever Biden’s or Buttigieg’s lip-service to climate goals, this money to DOTs is likely to go in large part to expanding capacity in ways that ramp up driving nationwide,” says Speck, author of the book Walkable City.

America has developed a built environment that is uniquely dependent on personal automobiles. As a result, 29 percent of the carbon emissions in the United States stem from transportation, with private cars and trucks comprising the vast majority of that total. That is the nation’s largest single contribution to climate change.

In the compromise forged by Senate Democratic moderates like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Republicans like Ohio’s Rob Portman, many of the climate-forward provisions were stripped from the bill. With its heavy emphasis on highways, experts like Speck say that the law of induced demand will ensure that new and expanded roadways will only attract more drivers — eventually creating more congestion and ensuring more carbon emissions.

A New Day for Amtrak

But the new spending in the infrastructure bill also includes large contributions to the capital budgets of American transit systems ($39 billion) and the national rail system ($66 billion). When adjusted for inflation and population increase it isn’t true, as the administration claims, that this is the largest federal infusion public transit and passenger rail have ever received. But it is still a serious investment.

“The one really important change in here, compared to previous investments, is the significant expansion in intercity rail,” says Yonah Freemark, senior research associate with the Urban Institute. “It has the potential to really improve intercity rail transportation policy throughout the country, potentially making Amtrak an option for more people everywhere.”
An Amtrak train.
(David Kidd/Governing)
The bill includes myriad smaller new initiatives, many of which were scaled down by the Senate. These include $5 billion for Vision Zero street safety investments, $1 billion for reconnecting communities cut off from opportunity by highways, an effort to reduce heat island effects in low-income areas, a pedestrian safety research program, and a push for more tree plantings.

Most federal transportation funds are dispersed by formula, so the Department of Transportation has little say over which projects get funded. But this time the secretary of transportation will have a more active role in the awarding of some funds. Much of the highway money will be allocated in the normal fashion, but Buttigieg’s office will have more input into $100 billion of the new spending. That includes new Amtrak money and an array of competitive capital programs for transit and carbon reduction on highways.

Still, the vast majority of roadway funding will go to state departments of transportation. From there some will sluice down to city and county policymakers like Crowley in Milwaukee. Advocates who focus on climate change and carbon emissions say many local-level actors have become less auto-oriented in recent years. But the state level is where the rubber meets the road.

“The state and local governments are the ones that have to come up with the projects,” says Freemark. “There is incredible potential for ambitious state governments to use the flexing capacity of this money to transform highway formula funds into other uses. That’s perfectly allowed, it’s just that states haven’t made that a big priority.”

While highway funds can be spent on bus lanes or complete streets programs, they seldom are put to such uses. When it comes to competitive money allocated from the federal DOT, Buttigieg’s team can only select from projects that are brought to them.

For nearly 70 years, state departments of transportation have mostly focused on the construction and expansion of America’s highway system. With few exceptions, they are known for insular cultures impervious to new ways of thinking.

“State DOTs are different than they were 20 years ago, but not different enough,” says Gary Toth, who worked at the New Jersey Department of Transportation for 34 years. “Most people start right out of college, they grow up in these institutions, the culture is transmitted to them, and they stay there forever. They are amongst the most stable organizations in the country.”

Toth insists there has been some improvement, and that state DOTs are less change-averse of late. Local-level leaders are even further ahead in considering how transportation infrastructure affects the health of their constituents and the planet.

In Milwaukee County, Crowley says his staff are still going through the bill to catalog the programs and funds they will be eligible for. He reels off a list of investments he hopes to make with aid of federal dollars. There’s a $30 million backlog of bridge repairs needed in the county.

But Crowley also talks about more bus rapid transit, reducing urban heat islands, and replacing outdated transit vehicles.

Asked if he would expand roadways, Crowley is noncommittal, saying that his team will be working with the Wisconsin DOT. Then he changes the subject.

“When we look at what’s in this bill related to the green economy, there’s going to be opportunities for new construction possibly within our parks department,” says Crowley. “For us, it’s about repairing and maintaining what we currently have when we think about our roads, bridges, and railroads.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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