Transportation bill report card: Some A’s, but also D’s and F’s

The Outer Banks flood North Carolina's Highway 12. A new bill aims to require federal highways officials to consider sea level rise and the increasing number of natural disasters and extreme weather events when planning transportation infrastructure.

The U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee has reported a bill that reveals where and how some lawmakers want to spend money on our nation’s highways, roadways, and bridges. The bill features a few forward-looking ideas that envision a more modern transportation system, but the proposal is also weighed down with some clunky, 1950s-era planning that hasn’t evolved with the times, along with other provisions that would take a step backward by undermining environmental reviews.

We asked our Land and Community Program leader, Trip Pollard, senior attorneys Kym Hunter and Sarah Stokes, and Director of Federal Affairs Nat Mund to look over some of the bill’s key elements and give them a grade.


Another huge windfall for highways: Grade F

Of the $303 billion allocated in the bill, more than 70 percent -- or $220 billion -- is directed toward traditional highway programs. This is just not the type of investment we need to see in 2021. The transportation sector now is the top contributor to our changing climate, and doubling down on a car-centric, decades-old strategy of dumping money into highway-building is unimaginative and irresponsible. We must get serious about climate change and steer federal money to more innovative transportation investments.

Requirement that federal highway officials consider sea level rise, and the increasing number of natural disasters and extreme weather events, when planning transportation infrastructure: Grade B+

Now we’re talking. In the previous administration, climate change was essentially banned from consideration when it came to infrastructure projects. Huge mistake. Our southern coast is changing rapidly, and it is foolish not to plan for that. This section puts climate change more front and center in transportation planning, and also provides (some – but not enough!) money to make that happen. It talks the talk and takes modest steps towards walking the walk.

A huge investment -- $2.5 billion -- in the Transportation Alternatives Program that funds biking and walking infrastructure: Grade A-

This is a really important step forward. These modes of transportation have been massively underfunded but they are essential in creating safe, equitable communities. We see too many deaths on our roads. It is nonsensical that the safest way to get around is in a car, but for too many of our communities that is the current truth. A welcome amendment in committee added an additional $200 million to create a grant program to further assist communities on this issue.

Requirement to fund the Appalachian Development Highways System (ADHS): Grade F 

Some of the projects in this ADHS program were conceived in the 1960s, yet have not been built, often because of their exorbitant cost, meager transportation benefits, and the harm they would cause. This bill incentivizes states to build these subpar projects instead of projects that would better reflect the current needs of communities. The program is supposed to benefit rural underserved communities, yet projects such as the Birmingham Northern Beltline would instead benefit some of the wealthiest counties in Alabama, at a cost to all taxpayers of up to $5.2 billion. Many groups have ranked this highway as one of our country’s worst boondoggles.

Requirement that all authorizations for construction of major highway projects be completed within 90 days of a final decision: Grade D

This is impossible to do well at the best of times. And certainly not without more federal staff. In our experience, gathering the final authorizations in 90 days is an unrealistic deadline that will mean that permits are rushed through without gathering the necessary data and providing sufficient opportunity for public input. But built into this section are opportunities to request exemptions, so it’s not clear how effective this section will be.

Requirement that typical environmental reviews average two years: Grade C+

While this shouldn’t be an unrealistic goal, the bill doesn’t provide any way for agencies to accomplish the goal other than setting the arbitrary deadline. Simply telling agencies to work faster without more resources is likely to lead only to cutting corners and bad decisions.

Requirement to deploy broadband in Appalachia: Grade A

The pandemic forced many of us to work from home and our kids to attend school remotely. That put an enormous strain on households that don’t live in areas with access to consistent, speedy internet. The bill reauthorizes a commission to, among other things, deploy high-speed broadband to the Appalachian region.

Requirement for an environmental impact statement to be 200 pages or less: Grade D

This is an arbitrary and nonsensical number that doesn’t recognize the vast differences in projects. It is even worse than a portion of the Trump administration’s gutting of the National Environmental Policy Act, which we are challenging in court. The Trump regulations capped reviews at 300 pages. The page limit could actually backfire and make reviews take longer because it will be a laborious task for government employees to edit assessments of complex projects down to 200 pages. They might have to omit important information, thus leaving a study open to challenge.

Requirement to expand a program that relieves traffic congestion and improves air quality: Grade A

The bill contains a wide-ranging section that would go a long way toward cutting vehicle emissions. It provides economic incentives to replace diesel ferry boats, establishes a program to reduce truck idling at ports, creates a fund to make it easier for people to walk and bike to work, and would even explore more energy-efficient options for stoplights and streetlights. These and other provisions would help advance many of the ways our transportation system could be made more efficient and less dirty.

Requirement that the Secretary of Transportation track and report the time needed to complete the NEPA process, and create an accountability system for major projects: Grade B+

Not a bad idea at all. If we really want to speed up project delivery, we need to know what is slowing it down. This could be valuable to countering a wrongheaded narrative that environmental review is the problem. Our experience in working with large infrastructure projects like highways, pipelines and bridges is that NEPA is unfairly scapegoated for all manner of delays. Most delays are because of funding or political squabbles, not NEPA. It would be good to have data that shows this.

Requirement to better fund a transition to electric vehicles: Grade A-

This section goes a long way toward making it more attractive for consumers and businesses to purchase electric vehicles. It would provide incentives for businesses to switch to electric heavy-duty trucks, and it would add more charging infrastructure. It would also allow smaller communities access to grants to encourage more zero-emission cars and trucks.

Requirement to further public transportation: Grade A

Sections of the bill encourage bus rapid-transit corridors and require metropolitan areas to spend a certain amount of funding on mass transit. It also would also give a break on tolls to buses that travel longer distances so they would be charged the same as public-transportation buses.

Requirement to keep pedestrians safe: Grade A

Long overdue and welcome. The bill provides money to better keep pedestrians and bicyclists separate from traffic, and puts back into law a “Safe Routes to School Program” to help students more safely walk or ride bicycles to school. It would also provide funding to increase the use of “micromobility projects,” like electric scooters and electric bikes.

The Environment and Public Works Committee is just one committee with jurisdiction over the surface transportation reauthorization process. Other committees have jurisdiction over transit and rail funding, so there are lots of opportunities for this bill to get better. And it’s important we let our senators know that we need them to do better. Just like a middle schooler, it’s never too late to raise your grades, and we hope our elected officials can rise to the challenge of this moment.

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