Follow the Money and Change How It Is Spent

It bears repeating that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will be the largest infusion of federal transportation spending in local communities since the 1950s. It is a unique, once-a-generation opportunity to use infrastructure investments to meet our climate and equity goals.

But inertia is not our friend. The grooves of transportation spending at the state level are well worn with a historically heavy bias toward highway expansion, so change will only happen when forced. However, the good news is the tools required to create a more equitable and clean transportation system already exist within Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. What we need now is for state departments of transportation to take advantage of the flexibility that exists within the law by investing in projects that reconnect communities, increase transportation choices, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Seattle Bus Rapid Transit Construction

Share the Cities/NACTO via Flickr, CC BY-NC 4.0

The way transportation funding is allocated to states is straightforward: Congress establishes formula grant programs – pots of funding that are distributed to states or other entities based on a formula laid out in the law. These formulas typically consider things such as a state’s population or the size of its existing transportation network. Recipients are usually state Departments of Transportation (DOTs), tribal governments, and transit agencies. Congress has also created some competitive programs that cities and other entities can apply for. Historically transportation reform advocates have tended to focus on the competitive programs. The federal Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) program, for example, is already supporting excellent initiatives around the country, and the newly created Reconnecting Communities pilot program will be the first explicit attempt by the federal government to reweave neighborhoods that were victims of the worst racist excesses of the interstate construction era.   

While these competitive programs are laudable, they are highly competitive and over-subscribed. The real opportunity, and frankly the real money, is in the formula programs as you can see by the graph below. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grants the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) $345B, and $295B of that are formula funds. While many of these formula programs are referred to as “highway” programs, the funding is highly flexible which means that state DOTs can use these funds for other uses such as, but not limited to:

  • Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure
  • Transit
  • Electric vehicle charging infrastructure
  • Ferries
  • Traffic management

Using this flexibility will be essential if we are to be successful in getting the climate outcomes we want from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. As my NRDC colleague Deron Lovaas noted in a recent blog,

“The Georgetown Climate Center’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from the law shows that how it’s implemented will determine whether it helps accelerate progress or exacerbates our climate crisis. Converting Georgetown’s GHG estimates into barrels of oil suggests the same applies to energy security—if implemented with a heavy emphasis on new roadbuilding the law could increase consumption by more than 500 million barrels of oil through 2040 relative to business as usual, while flexing funding to other purposes could reduce consumption by more than 600 million barrels over the same period.”

The importance of these provisions cannot be overstated. The bill drafters gave planners and decision makers at the state and local level the authority to transfer funds between highways and other uses, with best uses determined based on locally defined goals. This freedom of funding should boost support for non-pavement solutions in order to achieve a more balanced transportation network.

Julia Robinson for NRDC

How can states, cities, and community-based organizations ensure that we are getting the largest climate and equity bang for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law dollar?

  • Seek out like-minded organizations who share an interest in transportation reform, equity, and climate change. Some communities have existing advocacy organizations who already work on this, but if not reach out to organizations who may not think of themselves as a “transportation reform” group but share the goal of transportation equity. For example, community action agencies have a long-time interest in accessing more employment opportunities for their clients and lack of affordable transportation is a barrier to employment.
  • Consult with local officials, especially those who sit on your local metropolitan planning organization (MPO) board, about these opportunities. Ask them if they or the state DOT has taken advantage of this flexibility.
  • Reach out to federal agency regional or state staff. The administration has specifically encouraged state DOTs to use this flexibility. Work with federal agency staff to learn how your state and city are, or are not, using this flexibility. There needs to be a feedback loop to connect the way the federal government wants the law to be used, and how it is actually being implemented on the ground.

We are not going solve the problems we have today by continuing to invest more resources in the projects of the past. If we remain clear on our goals of reducing fossil fuels and enhancing equity, we can take advantage of this federal opportunity and make meaningful change.

About the Authors

John Bailey

State and Federal Transportation Advocate, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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