Biden’s climate promises challenged by influx of highway dollars

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The Biden administration wants federal infrastructure money used to fix crumbling roads and bridges before it is spent building new ones, in part to limit climate change. Even so, the White House may have little say in how hundreds of billions of dollars are being deployed.

Republicans are criticizing the federal administration’s guidelines on how to allocate infrastructure funds, and the back and forth has become controversial in recent weeks as money from the new law begins to flow to states.

“The administration has issued guidelines saying, ‘We would really like you to take care of what you’ve built before you build new things,'” Beth Osborne, director of the transportation advocacy group for America, said. referring to recent guidelines. “And they said, ‘Maybe so, but do me.'”

Over the next five years, the $1 trillion infrastructure program (Public law 117-58) that Congress signed into law in November will send hundreds of billions of dollars for roads to states, where expansion projects and freeway construction have contributed to the transportation sector generating the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions greenhouse in the country.

States are receiving $52.5 billion this fiscal year for federal highway assistance formula funding, a 20% increase, according to the administration’s infrastructure guide released last week.

Some Democrats want tougher emission limits on highway spending and a focus on projects that reduce fossil fuel consumption. Republicans generally favor a hands-off federal approach to how states and localities spend funds.

“Our biggest investment has been in highways,” Sen said. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a member of the bipartisan group that negotiated the infrastructure bill for months. “You can imagine our surprise when we see the Ministry of Transport indicating that highway money cannot be used to increase highway capacity. This direction goes against our intention and our needs.

Despite letters from Republican-run states complaining about the instructions, the guidelines are not binding. Governors have the power to distribute formula funds – the biggest pot of money – wherever they want.

Still, the Department of Transportation retains control of the bill’s other discretionary funds, including billions of dollars in grants, signaling years of political wrangling to come over what the White House has declared a “one-time investment in the our nation’s infrastructure and competitiveness”. .”

Resistance and extension of the road

In “most cases” highway money through the Infrastructure Act should be used to repair and maintain existing infrastructure before spending on “expansions for additional general purpose capacity”, said Stephanie Pollack, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, in the first advice memo dated December 16.

This direction was “bolder than anything I’ve seen before,” Osborne said. The White House reiterated its position last month when Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator Mitch Landrieu wrote governors, pointing out that the $52.5 billion allocated to states this year will be used “to repair” roads and bridges.

The tongue raised red flags.

“Overregarding equity, union memberships or climate as lenses for viewing appropriate projects would be counterproductive,” 16 governors said in a statement. letter to President Joe Biden. “A clear example of federal overreach would be an attempt by the Federal Highway Administration to limit state expansion plans,” they said, adding that it would penalize rural states and those with growing populations.

“Send us the money. Give us flexibility,” Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said at the White House last week. “We’ll spend it and you can audit us.”

representing Sam Graves (R-Mo.), a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the Transportation Department “may not be following the intent of Congress” and request Landrieu to brief the panel. A White House spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

While Tennessee operates under a ‘fix-first philosophy’, a spokesman for Governor Bill Lee (R), who signed the governors letter, said states need autonomy in how to spend federal funds. Lee recently proposed budget includes road widening and repair projects.

Although states hold the purse strings of their formula dollars, the Department of Transportation is beginning to to go out discretionary programs that will consider climate change and equity for applicants. But many new provisions, such as the legally authorized carbon reduction program, can not move forward until lawmakers agree on a one-year supply bill.

Greener pathways

Some states are beginning to explore greener projects that could further separate appearance from transportation spending based on region of the country.

The new Colorado Transportation Commission rule requires state and local planning organizations to assess the possible effects of transportation projects on climate emissions.

The state relies on modeling to help achieve new goals. If a project fails, the agency could recommend adding capacity for bus rapid transit in a freeway project, said Shoshana Lew, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“There’s no point in having a policy that’s about models in the abstract if day-to-day projects don’t actually align with those values,” Lew said.

Michigan is building a road that will charge electric vehicles as they drive. Other areas are exploring low-carbon cement, roundabouts and diverting funds from highways to transit projects.

Jim Brainard, Republican Mayor of Carmel, Ind., has overseen the construction of more than 100 roundabouts in his city, noting that they move 50% more cars per hour than a red light, save fuel and reduce carbon emissions. The congestion-mitigation components of federal highway law include incentives to build roundabouts, said Brainard, who called the fight against climate change a “nonpartisan issue.”

Massive spending on roads and bridges from the Infrastructure Act will be a boon to the building materials market. Climate activist groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, have noted Whether spending harms or contributes to climate goals will depend on the type of projects funded and the types of materials used.

Concrete remains an obstacle to climate-friendly infrastructure plan

Buying low-carbon cements with infrastructure dollars would save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Sean O’Neill, senior vice president of government affairs. to the Portland Cement Association, which represents cement manufacturers. Traditional concrete accounts for at least 7% of global carbon dioxide emissions that fuel climate change, according to BloombergNEF.

‘Extremely difficult’

Transportation has largely been built around facilitating vehicular traffic in the traditional way, and most states have embraced that paradigm, said Norman Garrick, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut. Changing how states plan to spend federal transportation money is “extremely difficult,” he said.

In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has raised concerns about the inability to roll out expansion plans, while his Democratic delegation request the state Department of Transportation for plans on how officials can use Federal Highway Administration money to support public transit over the next five years.

Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Traffic on Interstate 85 in Atlanta on May 13, 2021.

A planned expansion of the I-20 and I-285 interchange east of Atlanta has raised environmental justice concerns, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Told Georgia Department of Transportation and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Feb. 4 letter.

“A project that worsens pollution, fails to remove congestion, and makes it harder to build transit expansion projects in the corridor seems like a particularly inefficient use of federal transportation funds,” he said. -he writes.

Even states that prioritize repairs cannot ignore the political advantage that can come with the unveiling of a new highway or bridge, Osborne said.

“A lot of times governors want to build new things because, frankly, you get a lot better press for building new things than for fixing things,” she said.

“Just think of the press that accompanies a major bridge rehabilitation: traffic will be saved,” she noted. “But you’re building a whole new bridge, not fixing anything: ribbon cutting, big press. There is a lot of political pressure to do what you deserve.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in washington at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at [email protected]; Robin Meszoly at [email protected]

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