Transportation Program’s #1 Goal Is Reducing Emissions

First of its kind, Carbon Reduction Program explicitly focused on reducing emissions from the transportation sector. State plans will be key to making it happen.

In a first for federal transportation policy, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law created the $6.4 billion Carbon Reduction Program, the first large-scale federal formula transportation program designed explicitly to reduce carbon emissions. States will decide how to allocate the funding they receive among a range of investments that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As importantly, these are also the type of investments that lead to multiple benefits, including improved safety for vulnerable road users, less air pollution from ozone and particulate matter, and enhanced equity for neighborhoods. The full list is included here, but below are a handful of eligible uses:

  • Bicycle and pedestrian facilities, including the planning, construction and design of non-motorized infrastructure such as sidewalks, protected bike infrastructure, and bike shares;
  • Public transportation infrastructure, including dedicated bus lanes;
  • Nature-based solutions in transportation rights-of-way;
  • Alternative fuel projects, which can include electrification (yay!!) but also natural gas and propane (boo!!);
  • Transportation demand management, which includes commuter benefits, parking cash out, real time bus arrival information, etc.

A conceptual rendering of VIA’s Advanced Rapid Transit Project in San Antonio, Texas


Courtesy of VIA Transit

While many laudable discretionary programs were created or continued in the 2021 infrastructure law, such as the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grant program (RAISE, which just released their 2023 grantees!) and Reconnecting Communities, the bulk of the federal transportation spending is still formula programs, which means each state Department of Transportation (DOT) receives a percentage of funding each year. States have a lot of discretion over how they spend these funds, which can be used not just for highway repair but also for pollution-inducing highway expansion projects. The Carbon Reduction Program stands out among these other formula programs for its focus on reducing environmental harm.

Opportunity for Advocates

While accountability mechanisms for state investment decisions are limited, Congress did insist on one important mechanism that could create an accountability structure. Two years into the law, all states are required to develop a carbon reduction plan for their transportation sectors. The plans, due Nov. 15, 2023, present an opportunity to get states “on record” about how they plan to use this record transportation spending to reduce transportation related emissions. Though the plans are required as part of the Carbon Reduction Program, they are not limited to projects to be funded from that program; instead, states should take a comprehensive look at strategies for reducing carbon emissions from transportation. 

Most State DOTs are probably creating these plans now, and this can be a good opportunity to ensure that the right principles and guidelines are in place to ensure that these funds to go to the most impactful projects. Specifically,   

  • While electrification is a critical strategy, mobility choices should also be prominent in any carbon reduction strategy. 
  • Plans should involve environmental justice and disadvantaged communities early in their development. 
  • Strong plans will include specific projects to be funded, not just general strategic planning. 
  • Plans should be action-oriented, including identifying responsible parties and funding sources for identified projects.   

NRDC will be working closely with partner groups over the summer to provide more information on how best to engage in this process. For some states that already have climate change plans in place, this will be an opportunity to ensure climate change planning includes looking closely at the actual transportation projects the state is funding. And for those states where climate change has not been a top priority, this is a chance to start a conversation because states must develop these plans to comply with the infrastructure law. While the Carbon Reduction Program represents only a small fraction of total funding under that law, the requirement for states to develop carbon reduction strategies could lay the groundwork for even greater impact on greenhouse gas emissions – but only if states seize the opportunity to act.

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