Transportation Infrastructure: Fix It for Our Future

Cities and states are taking action on transportation upgrades. What they need is federal support and consistency.

Jorge Alcala

It is clear in communities across the country that we have an urgent need to invest in a transportation infrastructure that helps protect our climate and is built to withstand the damage done by climate change.

We see every day the extent to which our climate is changing, producing harsher storms, rising sea levels, and higher temperatures. These changes have costs and consequences—for our economy, our public health, and our infrastructure. As frightening as the very real harm from climate change is, we need to have the courage to take strong action.

As we know, the scientific consensus is that our changing climate is the result of human activities that have emitted carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

What is not as well known is that the transportation sector has become the largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, our transportation facilities—our roads, bridges, tunnels, rails, airports, waterways, and ports—are uniquely vulnerable to damage caused by severe storms, rising sea levels, and extremes of temperature.

This is the time for bold investment in our transportation system so that it serves the best interest of our communities when it comes to getting where they need to be in a way that is affordable, fast and clean. The current Surface Authorization Bill—the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act will expire in October 2020. Congress is already rightly looking at bipartisan efforts to put in place a refreshed transportation system. What is critical is that this system better meet our current and future needs when it comes to eliminating climate pollution and safeguarding against the impacts of climate change.

We know what solutions look like. We see cities and states across the country already taking action, such as with the Transportation and Climate Initiative in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. What they need is federal support and vision.

A federal transportation vision means investing in infrastructure that reduces transportation climate pollution such as through electrifying vehicles and enhancing public transportation, and that maintains strong national vehicle emissions standards. We need policy solutions that will improve how people, goods, and services move about the country. That means policies that decrease the amount of time and distance we spend in our cars and that provide incentives for smarter development that gives us choices for walking, biking and transit.

It also means ensuring that the transportation infrastructure of the future can withstand the damage that climate change is causing and will continue to cause. According to federal scientists, the cost of climate change on our roads, energy, water, sewer and other infrastructure since 1980 has exceeded $1.5 trillion. States and cities see this and are taking action.

We need to build a transportation system that helps us overcome the legacy of a past where communities were divided and underserved based on income and race. Again, communities are recognizing this and taking action. For example, the Uptown and Downtown Arts District neighborhoods in Dallas are separated by the eight-lane Woodall Rodgers freeway. Dallas is working to connect these neighborhoods and increase foot traffic downtown, knowing that this will also likely increase economic development and pedestrian safety.

The reality of balancing environmental, social and climate impacts with our transportation infrastructure means that our nation’s bedrock environmental protections must be maintained and enforced, and can never be sacrificed in the name of “streamlining.” The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) remains a vital part of ensuring that climate, environmental, and community impacts are considered before federal decisions are finalized. In fact, moving ahead we need to strengthen NEPA assessments: broadening analysis of alternatives and ensuring that people have a voice in decisions that will affect their communities for decades to come.

Finally, we need to ensure federal funding such as through a revived Transportation Trust Fund that includes support for community and climate related programs. We must find diverse, sustainable financing solutions for our infrastructure investments. The last major investment in our transportation system built the federal highway system and we’ve been sustaining an increasingly multi-faceted transportation system with that now antiquated funding system. We can do better.

Climate change is harming communities across the United States, and today’s transportation sector is a major cause while also being on the frontlines of damage from climate change impacts. This is the time for a bold vision to build a transportation system that provides good jobs, serves our communities, and helps ensure a healthy climate. We need to fix our transportation system for our future.

About the Authors

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz

Chief Program Officer

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.