How to Make Federal Transportation Funds Work for Climate and Justice

Funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act can help expand non-car mobility options, set statewide emissions reduction targets, and install EV infrastructure.

This week is Infrastructure Week, the annual event that brings together a diverse set of stakeholders to discuss national infrastructure policies and practices. This year’s focus will be on projects implemented by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also called the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The 2021 bill has already deployed more than $195 billion to states, which can use funds to achieve equitable and climate-friendly outcomes by expanding non-car mobility options, setting statewide emissions reduction targets, and installing charging infrastructure for electric cars, trucks, and buses. 

Passage of the IIJA allocated $567 billion to transportation programs across the country, making it one of the largest investments ever made to restore the United States’ aging transportation infrastructure. As such, the spending package represents a crucial opportunity to both mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and tackle transportation justice issues.

Though the law represents a significant commitment of federal funds, state governments remain in the driver’s seat to determine how most of the transportation dollars are spent. Roughly 70 percent of the funds will be dispersed to states via formula programs, which distribute money to state agencies based on indicators like population and existing road networks. 

The challenge therefore remains to advance national climate and equity goals through state-led transportation programs. States have historically used transportation funding primarily for highway expansion and road development, which often run counter to decarbonization in the transportation sector—the largest source of emissions in the United States.

Moreover, the infrastructure law has raised important questions about long-standing environmental and transportation justice issues. Transportation infrastructure investments that occur in the next few years will decide how people—especially low-income communities of color—will move for decades to come.

Below are three ways that states can use infrastructure funds to simultaneously advance climate goals and transportation justice:

1. Expand non-car mobility options, such as public transit, walking, and biking to improve low-income communities’ access to key services.

Nonmotorized modes of transportation and public transit reduce carbon emissions, making them more climate-friendly options. 

The data have shown that people of color in the United States have significantly less access to private vehicles, and so are often much more reliant on public transportation than white people. For example, Latine and Asian American employees are two times less likely to own a car than their white counterparts, and Black employees are three times less likely.

The prioritization of infrastructure investments for private vehicles therefore inherently disadvantages the employment of low-income people of color.

Along with access to jobs, infrastructure investments also have key implications on health care. Research shows that more than one in five adults without access to a vehicle have forgone health care due to a lack of public transportation. 

Investments in public transportation can therefore improve the access of historically underserved communities to health-care services. A 2021 Urban Institute study found that the expansion of light-rail transit in Minnesota led to a direct decline in missed appointments, especially for Medicaid patients.

Walking and biking infrastructure is also crucial for underserved communities. Children from low-income families are twice as likely to walk to school compared to higher-income families, which increases their risk of being injured or killed as pedestrians. Investing in safer and more walkable streets means preventing fatalities in low-income communities of color. 

2. Set statewide GHG reduction targets to create accountability and transparency for transportation justice.

In the United States, the impacts of climate change are disproportionately felt by people of color and low-income communities. These communities have fewer resources to prepare for, and recover from, events such as extreme weather, droughts, and flooding. If left unaddressed, impacts of climate change will continue to exacerbate income inequality. Mitigating statewide GHG emissions is therefore critical to improving livelihoods for low-income communities of color. 

Time-bound, measurable emissions targets increase state-level accountability by providing a yardstick for progress. However, many states still lack targets and there remains a shortage of encouragement and guidance from the federal government on how to measure GHG emissions while a regulation that was proposed last summer remains under review. 

States can receive federal assistance when developing GHG emissions reduction targets. For example, the Indiana Department of Transportation is working toward reducing emissions through the $6.4 billion Carbon Reduction Program—a formula program that helps states with their carbon reduction strategies and provides funds to deliver carbon reduction projects. 

3. Install ubiquitous charging infrastructure for cars, trucks, and buses.

Communities of color are more likely to live near highways and so are more prone to pollution-related health impacts caused by tailpipe emissions from internal combustion engine vehicles. Vehicle tailpipes are the single-largest source of climate pollution and one of the leading sources of local air pollution in the United States. 

Electric vehicles (EVs), by contrast, produce zero emissions. Electrifying light- and heavy-duty vehicles is therefore crucial to meeting our climate commitments and mitigating pollution-related illnesses.

The American Lung Association estimates that a 100 percent shift to sales of zero-emission passenger vehicles and trucks by 2050 would yield $1.2 trillion in public health benefits. EV deployment is already cleaning the air and leading to an observed reduction in asthma-related hospital visits.

Both states and the federal government have adopted or are considering standards that will massively accelerate EV adoption, but we need more plugs for those plug-in vehicles. Funding from IIJA can be used to build the EV charging infrastructure necessary to enable widespread adoption of zero-emission light-, medium-, and heavy-duty vehicles. Using IIJA dollars to increase access to charging where people live, work, and play—and where it’s most needed to zero out tailpipe pollution from the freight sector—works in tandem with financial incentives like the EV rebates and grant programs included in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Funding from IIJA continues to give states momentum to prioritize the three calls to action. This is a window of opportunity for states to ensure that transportation investments confront the climate crisis, clean the air in local communities, reduce household transportation expenditures, and positively change the way we move through the world.

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