Critics: ‘Big and bold’ infrastructure bill falls short on helping states fight climate change

By: - August 5, 2021 5:20 pm

The infrastructure proposal awaiting Senate action would provide $351 billion over five years for highway and bridge funding. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Senate is poised to pass a massive $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that would upgrade state transportation networks, electric grids, water systems and more.

It’s a major spending boost and potential job creator that critics say falls short of the administration’s goals to address climate change and reduce its effects in the states.

The White House worked for months with a group of 10 senators from both parties to write the 2,700-page bill, which includes a five-year highways and transit authorization. The Biden administration has said it would add up to 2 million new jobs every year for the rest of the decade.

The measure would also boost spending on electric vehicle charging stations, transit programs, passenger rail and other programs meant to reduce transportation fossil fuel emissions that contribute to climate change.

“It’s the culmination of a lot of effort over the years to do something big and bold on infrastructure,” said Susan Howard, the program director for transportation finance at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, a group that advocates for state departments of transportation.

“We’re talking about a level of investment over the next five years that will be significant and have lasting impact,” Howard said.

But critics who wanted to see a greater focus on President Joe Biden’s stated goals of advancing climate action and equity for disadvantaged communities say the spending comes up short, or even worsens, progress toward those goals.

“If you think about this bill in a historical context, we would say these are impressive investments,” said Kevin DeGood, an infrastructure specialist at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

“But if you think about it with respect to the magnitude of the challenge we face, first and foremost around climate but also around equity and things like that, we would say it’s inadequate.”

Money for highways and bridges

The bill would reauthorize surface transportation programs for five years, normally a major accomplishment on its own, Howard said.

It would provide $351 billion over five years for highway and bridge funding, a nearly 50% increase over current levels.

It also includes $107 billion for transit, a 65% boost, according to an analysis by Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation.

The bill also includes $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations, the first such federal effort. It would provide $2.5 billion to transit agencies and school districts for electric buses and ferries.

It would spend $66 billion on passenger rail, in what the administration called “the largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago.”

Although those provisions and others are meant to reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and reconnect communities displaced by earlier transportation projects, spending on those programs is dwarfed by the funds for highway spending, said Beth Osborne, director of  Transportation for America. The Washington think tank advocates for safer transportation systems and more efficient spending.

The transportation sector is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which estimated 29% of U.S. emissions in 2019 came from transportation.

“We’re going to do things to reduce climate emissions, but we’re going to spend more in ways that we know increase them,” Osborne said.

The White House’s first infrastructure proposal, introduced in April, said “Every dollar spent on rebuilding our infrastructure during the Biden administration will be used to prevent, reduce, and withstand the impacts of the climate crisis.”

But the hundreds of billions in new highway spending sends another message, DeGood said, saying highways were similar to oil pipelines in encouraging fossil fuel use.

“A pipeline is carbon production infrastructure,” DeGood said. “A highway is carbon consumption infrastructure.”

Democrats in the Senate, including Thomas E. Carper of Delaware, the chairman of the Environment & Public Works Committee responsible for highways authorization, acknowledged the bill did not sufficiently address climate change.

In a statement, Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Carper called for more climate action in the next major item the Senate plans to consider — a budget reconciliation bill that will likely gain no Republican votes.

“The climate crisis demands bold action, and while the bipartisan infrastructure bill currently before the Senate is a first step, on its own the bill does not go nearly far enough to restore and protect the most vulnerable communities on the frontlines of this crisis,” they said. “As the Senate prepares to consider reconciliation legislation … it is imperative that our investments directly benefit underserved communities.”

Reducing wildfire risk

As wildfires have ravaged the West and caused hazy skies throughout the country this summer, the bill’s supporters highlighted provisions meant to address fires.

“This historic, bipartisan infrastructure package ensures that Forest Service and Interior have the resources they need to not only fight fires, but also prepare communities and landscapes for the next fire before it happens,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, said in a Wednesday statement.

The bill includes $3.37 billion to reduce wildfire risk, according to a release from Tester. The Senate also approved an amendment Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., wrote that would double the funding for a program to improve resiliency on public and private lands.

“It’s clearly throwing a lot of money at the issue and that is a good thing,” Susan Jane Brown, a senior attorney with the conservation group Western Environmental Law Center, said.

“Just throwing money at a problem doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but what we know about the Forest Service and [the Bureau of Land Management] in particular is that when it comes to wildfire resilience, they’ve been underfunded for years by Congress.”

On the other hand, the bill includes policy changes to forest management that give conservationists “heartburn,” Brown said.

For example, the bill would allow the Forest Service to cut down trees to create fire breaks, but that opens the possibility that breaks would go under managed and be fertile ground for the flammable underbrush that sparks and spreads many fires.

What about the House bill?

The Senate bill’s momentum raises questions about the $715 billion, five-year transportation bill the House passed last month that included $5.7 billion in funding earmarked for hundreds of specific projects lawmakers sponsored that are greatly desired by states, counties and cities.

The earmarks were included after a lengthy process of submissions by House members, the first time in years earmarks had been allowed in legislation.

State departments of transportation prefer the Senate version because it offers them more flexibility in spending federal funds, Howard said.

But Osborne said the House bill is “better in every single way,” especially by restricting that flexibility. The House bill, for example, includes a provision that requires states to improve roads that need repair before constructing new ones.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.