Highways are not Great for planet earth. Their smooth, spacious, and attractive corridors have helped make transportation the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States, responsible for 29 percent of the total. Catalyzed by the Biden administration, major US automakers have pledged that 40 percent of their sales will be powered by plugs, not gas, by 2030. But even if the state achieves that goal, highways will still allow and encourage expansion, and more emissions. .
Which is why environmentalists were frustrated when the $1.3 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill was passed this year. In the end, the legislation mostly preserved the status quo, allocating 80 percent of transportation funding for highways and 20 percent for transit. Some of this money will be distributed through competitive grants, which means that the US Department of Transportation will play a role — more than it has in past years — in determining which projects are funded. In these cases, management can choose to prioritize climate-friendly buildings where they wish.
But most of the transportation funding over the next five years will be distributed to states, based on population. Then state and local officials will decide what to do with it. They could use some of the money to adapt or prevent climate change – or not. In other words, the federal government is not always responsible for the federal funds. If the goal is to reduce climate impacts, “that’s not a strategic approach,” says Beth Osborne, a former Department of Transportation official who is now Director of Transportation for America.
Now, the Biden administration is trying to put a light thumb on the scale, for road safety and for the planet. In a memo to employees published Thursday, Federal Highway Administration Deputy Administrator Stephanie Pollack directed her employees to encourage state and local governments to consider repairing existing roads before building new ones. The agency urges state officials to consider reinforcing non-highway roads, such as service roads or bridges, that are in dire straits. They will also kindly remind state and local officials that climate-friendly projects, such as bike lanes and walking paths, need less stringent environmental review than new roads and bridges. The new policy will apply to $350 billion in federal highway funding.
Local officials generally prefer to build new things, to show off scraps of tape, than to maintain old ones. Want to cut the tape sooner? The feds say a bike lane might be your best bet.
The administration should be asking, rather than asking, local governments to prioritize climate change because Congress squandered opportunities to do otherwise while compiling an infrastructure bill. The House version of the legislation, which lawmakers passed in the summer, included provisions that would force states to accept funding for highway repair before new roads are built or expanded. It would require countries that produce more greenhouse gas emissions to allocate more money to reduce them. It would have forced the recipients of the funding to show how their projects have contributed to climate change adaptation. The Senate wrote off all of it.