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Phil Covington headshot

America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act a Plus for the Environment

By Phil Covington
America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act

In today’s climate of political polarization, opportunities to pass important bipartisan legislation are vanishingly rare. However, infrastructure spending has often been recognized as an area where cooperation on both sides of the aisle might be possible, and this week the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted unanimously to pass the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA).

Repairs for now, and a look ahead to the future

What makes this achievement most satisfying is that as well as authorizing investments to maintain and repair America’s aging roads and bridges, the act lays out clear provisions which recognize the need to mitigate the effects of climate change as well curb carbon emissions, while making our environment safer for humans and wildlife alike.

At the high level, the bill provides $287 billion in highway spending from the Highway Trust Fund over five years, 90 percent of which will be distributed to the states by formula. The effort in crafting the bill was led by committee chairman John Barrasso (R, Wyoming) and ranking member Tom Carper (D, Delaware).

In an co-authored opinion piece written by Barrasso and Carper for CNN this week, they note: “nearly 200,000 miles of major highways require repairs” adding, “we also have more than 47,000 bridges that are deemed structurally deficient.”

It is, of course, a well known fact that necessary investments have, for years, been deferred in modernizing the country’s woefully aging infrastructure but in addressing it now, it is encouraging that the bill’s provisions are couched in the context of today’s reality. The authors state: “Our climate is changing, and we recognize that. We also recognize the need to reduce carbon emissions from our transportation infrastructure. Dedicated funding and new incentives in our legislation will help states reduce their total transportation emissions.”

Three things to know about the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act

Here are some of the ATIA’s key environmental provisions, and how they can have a positive impact on various industries:

First, there are carbon emissions incentive programs, including $3 billion distributed to states over five years for projects which lower highway-related carbon emissions. Also, an additional $500 million over five years is available which states can compete over, to fund improvements to per-capita emissions.

Second, funding will be made available to states to help reduce traffic congestion and reduce truck idling at ports. And in conjunction with other legislation, funding will be available for efforts to support carbon capture and sequestration research.

Finally, and perhaps one of the most exciting provisions, are grants for building out the nation’s alternative fuel infrastructure. The bill makes provisions for a competitive grant program, funded to the tune of $1 billion, for states to build hydrogen, natural gas and electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure along designated corridors.

A boost for electric vehicles?

As reported by Julia Pyper writing for Greentech Media, Nick Nigro, founder of the EV industry research firm Atlas Public Policy, indicates this will likely be a boost for the growing market for EVs: "A $1 billion infusion from the federal government into EV charging infrastructure will send a strong market signal to the private sector that the United States is serious about transportation electrification," he said. 

Indeed, senators Barrasso and Carper agree, writing in their CNN op-ed that the inclusion in the bill to build out alternative fuel infrastructure is designed “so that drivers of these vehicles do not experience "range anxiety" that their car could leave them stranded. Drivers of electric, hydrogen, and natural gas powered cars will now have access to these power and fuel stations.”

Despite the nod to hydrogen and natural gas, we suspect electrification will likely be the main beneficiary of the $1 billion funding as EVs are, by far, currently the alternative-fuel vehicles with the most traction. Pyper’s article also notes that the bill augments investments already earmarked by Volkswagen following “Dieselgate”, which along with planned utility company investments will mean $6 billion in EV charging infrastructure will be available in the near term. In the long term, better EV infrastructure will reduce the friction in EV ownership and likely generate further private investment as the popularity of these vehicles builds. 

Highway safety provisions feature in the bill too. $500 million per year will be distributed to states to support projects lowering driver and pedestrian fatalities, while another $250 million over five years will go towards reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions, in part by funding wildlife crossing structures.

Getting people out of their cars

Beyond motorized transportation, the bill is also good news for people trying to get out of cars altogether. People For Bikes, a cycling advocacy organization notes the passing of ATIA makes funding available for bike lanes, paths, trails, and bridges to the tune of at least $850 million in the first year.

So, there is a lot in the bill to recommend it from an environmental perspective. Detractors might note, however, that a key element in the ATIA is cutting red tape, under the “One Federal Decision” policy. This means that there is, for example, a two-year goal for completing environmental reviews for highway projects, which no doubt will raise concerns that this sets an arbitrary timeline which will not always be appropriate.

It is also, of course, not a done deal. Though the bill has passed out of the Senate committee, it now has to pass through the full Senate, the House, and then be signed by the President, though according to this short piece from Bloomberg Environment, the president has endorsed the bill on Twitter. 

Another critical hurdle to overcome is in securing the dollars to fund the bill. Still, the fact that the ATIA passed the Senate committee with a unanimous 21-0 bipartisan vote and that it’s passed this milestone with strong environmental provisions, is an encouraging start. Perhaps Infrastructure Week will finally arrive at last.

Image credit: New York City Department of Transportation/Flickr

Phil Covington headshot

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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