Highway Bill Is a Small Step When We Need to Leap

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unveiled its highway bill this weekend. While in some ways this is a historic piece of legislation given its climate provisions, over all it fails to meet the moment.


Photo by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unveiled its highway bill this weekend. While in some ways this is a historic piece of legislation given its climate provisions, over all it fails to meet the moment. We will be working to ensure Congress passes a bill that does rise to the occasion, reorienting our transportation system to cleaner options and addressing the inequities built into our current system.


Before digging in, it’s important to note that when addressing climate change, we need to be honest about a key problem with the Senate: Because of jurisdictional issues, EPW handles the highway components of the surface transportation legislation. The transit portions of the bill, which are crucial to addressing both climate and equity, will come from the Banking Committee. What was unveiled this weekend is just part of a package and the transit title must be big and bold as a complement to highways. 

First, the good news.

This bill would dramatically increase investment in the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), with provisions authored by Sen. Ben Cardin (of my home state of Maryland). This program provides funds for safe biking and walking infrastructure, which would benefit significantly from the $2.5 billion in added funding in this bill.

This bill has a lot to like for those of us who bike and walk:

  • the engineers who establish national road design standards—called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices—are instructed to consider the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians;
  • new funding is available for bike sharing programs;
  • metropolitan planning organizations must adopt complete streets and active transportation plans and policies;
  • and the role of bicyclists in helping with disaster relief and mobilization will be studied.

There is also for the first time a whole section of investments addressing climate change, specifically two new formula programs and two new discretionary grant programs. These programs will accelerate electrification of our vehicle fleet with investments in charging infrastructure along designated highway corridors as well as in communities. They also encourage better traffic management, congestion pricing, and transit, bicycle, and pedestrian investments to cut carbon pollution.

On top of existing investments in cleaner mobility in programs such as the 30-year-old Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (or CMAQ), I estimate this bill dedicates about $40 billion in climate-friendly transportation choices. And there are smaller but noteworthy ideas here, such as a new reconnecting communities program to remove highways that have cut off and isolated neighborhoods (although it’s a modest pilot program compared to the much larger version proposed in the American Jobs Plan and proposed by our partners Transportation for America and Third Way).

Sadly, that is where the good news ends.

One big—huge!—reason for this is the $220 billion pumped into traditional highway programs, specifically the National Highway Performance Program and the Surface Transportation Block Grant. In other words, more than five times as much funding will go to decades-old highway programs than to the climate programs I lauded earlier. While it’s true that the Surface Transportation Block Grant program is eligible for a host of uses, states have frequently used it to build new highways—and are still doing so today, even as repair needs are pegged at an eye-popping $435 billion according to the Federal Highway Administration.  Without clear direction from Congress and the Transportation department to change course, there’s no reason to think states won’t continue doing what they’ve always done. 

There is still a chance to change the trajectory of these massive highway programs. One way to do so is commonsense—establish a requirement that states must stop deferring maintenance and repairs, requiring them to “fix-it-first” when hammering out transportation plans and programs. This is a no-brainer: Would you build an addition to your house first, or pay for the roof 20 years overdue for replacement? And yet it’s a huge problem, as partners Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense described the gaping need most recently in their 2019 Repair Priorities report. Don’t waste federal dollars paving over new places before you fix what you’ve already built!

Another way is to change how transportation planners measure success.

Specifically, with transportation now our top source of pollution driving climate change, metropolitan planning organizations and state transportation agencies should track it and set targets to reduce it. Seems like commonsense, no? In fact, the Obama administration made this a rule in 2017, but it was reversed by the Trump administration. NRDC sued them successfully to get it back in place. This should be part of a highway bill, as performance measurement and management of transportation greenhouse gas emissions will help make sure our national investments are lined up with our climate goals. While this requirement was in the House transportation bill from 2020, it’s missing from the Senate bill.

Last but not least, anti-environment provisions which undermine public reviews pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act must be rejected. This is crucial because even if plans and programs are assembled based a “fix-it-first” policy and a greenhouse gas measure, the projects rolled up into them can go disastrously wrong. That’s why environmental reviews of projects are so important. This is not a new issue, but a scapegoat for project delay issues (often related to lack of funding or real local controversies).

Specifically, this bill would impose a one-size-fits-all approach for the federal environmental review of transportation projects regardless of size, complexity, or controversy. It also excludes new categories of projects from review, including exempting thousands of natural gas, oil and wastewater pipelines—known as “gathering lines”—compressors and pumps on federal lands. That’s wholly unrelated to surface transportation and is a clear giveaway to the fossil fuel industry.

Another provision expands the Department of Transportation’s NEPA assignment program, which has been subject to significant abuse by state agencies. This has had a direct and disproportionate impact on environmental justice communities across the country, who have already experienced environmental racism and severe displacement when the original interstate highway system was built starting in 1956. For example, in Houston, Texas, impacts to the surrounding African American community associated with expanding Interstate-45 were so severe that the Federal highway administration recently asked Texas’ transportation department to halt construction on the project in March. It also launched an investigation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In sum, while this bill contains climate-friendly provisions, ones that protect and lift up bicyclists and pedestrians while advancing some vehicle electrification, it doesn’t meet the moment. We need Congress to make repairs and improvements to it and other transportation proposals moving forward.

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