Will the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (IIJA, P.L 117-58) perform well vis-à-vis important goals, especially tackling climate change and improving racial equity? It all depends on how it’s implemented. For example, as I wrote about last month the Georgetown Climate Center analyzed possible scenarios in terms of carbon pollution due to investments in the law, finding that it could exacerbate the climate crisis or help solve it. Under the IIJA, hundreds of billions of dollars will flow directly to state departments of transportation to use as they see fit. Whether these funds are put toward climate-friendly, equitable transportation investments or plowed into the same car-biased, transportation system we’ve had for decades will determine the IIJA’s legacy.
Recognizing the scale of the opportunity before us and the urgency of getting it right, the entire Georgia Democratic Congressional delegation—two Senators and 6 Representatives—sent this letter to the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) urging that agency to maximize its use of IIJA funds to improve public transportation services. People are taking notice, including the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Specifically, the Georgia delegation wants GDOT to use the flexible dollars provided by the two largest transportation programs in the IIJA—the National Highway Performance Program and the Surface Transportation Block Grant program (NHPP and STBG respectively)—for transit. Together, these two programs contain more than $200 billion of funding in the current law. Though they are categorized as “highway” programs, grantees can spend this money on a variety of eligible activities, including:
- Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure;
- Public transportation including rail and bus transit lines;
- Traffic management for example by replacing traffic signals;
- Road safety improvements; and
- Electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
The $72-billion Surface Transportation Block Grant program was meant to be pivotal in terms of flexibility of highway accounts. This program—originally dubbed the Surface Transportation Program—was created in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA, P.L. 102-240) to intentionally signal to states that the decades of highway-building were closed now that the country was criss-crossed by millions of miles of roads. Unfortunately evidence since then (see here and here, for example) shows that states have spent paltry sums on anything other than roads (with a handful of exceptions).
This is no surprise. State highway agencies and the Federal Highway Administration are by far the biggest bureaucracies within states and the U.S. Departments of Transportation. Historically they have dominated other government agencies with staff and resources. For these agencies, then, highway-building remains the biggest, most familiar tool in investment toolboxes. And you know the expression, when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.
That is why the Georgia delegation letter is so important. Only with pressure from champions like these will these agencies diversify their toolboxes. The letter’s worth reading in its entirety since it covers an array of important issues including effective use of the new Carbon Reduction Program included in the IIJA (the first-ever highway program dedicated to tackling climate change) and more flexible use of Georgia state tax revenues. And I want to lift up the specific requests it makes of GDOT regarding flexible use of monies from NHPP and STBG:
“[W]e respectfully request details regarding the following:
- plans and rationale for how GDOT will use its ability to flex Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) funding to support public transit over the next five years under the IIJA;
- plans and rationale for how GDOT will use new pots of money for which public transit is eligible (such as the Carbon Reduction Program) to invest in public transit;
- identification of any specific barriers GDOT may face to fully utilizing the ability to flex FHWA funds for public transit; and
- a detailed explanation and accounting of how GDOT has used flexible FHWA funding to support public transit over the previous 10 years”
This is really important information, which people in Georgia deserve to know. And these same questions must be asked of every other state department of transportation, so we’re assured this massive new transportation law helps solve our climate and equity crises instead of exacerbating them.