News | November 15, 2021

Infrastructure bill could transform the South

Funding Amtrak expansions and upgrades is a key component of the infrastructure bill.

A massive infrastructure bill approved by Congress last week will provide, among other things, historic funding for mass transit, passenger rail, access to renewable energy, and charging stations for electric vehicles — all key elements needed to make the South a more livable region in the face of a changing climate.

The bill also contains provisions that will help keep Southerners more healthy and more connected with funding for drinking-water safety and rural broadband access.

But SELC attorneys emphasize that the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill raises risks in how the money might be spent. The bill will be most beneficial if the funds are spent wisely, and if it is paired with the nearly $2 trillion “Build Back Better” plan that focuses on climate adaptation, education, social programs and reducing transportation pollution.

The “Build Back Better” proposal has not yet passed Congress and SELC will continue to advocate for Southern environmental priorities.

“By itself, this infrastructure legislation may not result in overall benefits for the environment, help us reach our climate goals, or address the environmental inequities that have plagued past infrastructure projects,” said Trip Pollard, leader of SELC’s Land and Community Program. “If paired with the provisions in ‘Build Back Better,’ it could usher in a positive transformation for the South. And we will work to shape how the massive amounts of money sent to the states will be spent.”

The infrastructure bill contains, for example, $273 billion over five years for highways, but will leave most spending decisions in the hands of the states.

“The bill includes a pot of money that needs some guardrails,” said Kym Hunter, a senior attorney with SELC’s Chapel Hill office. “That highway funding shouldn’t go to projects that exacerbate sprawl, but rather to more sensible transportation projects. We need to repair the roads and bridges we have now, improve intersections and traffic flow, expand bus lanes, and ensure that our transportation infrastructure won’t be at risk from rising seas and natural disasters.”

Hunter noted that, as the bill passed, Highway 12 in the Outer Banks was once again impassible because of flooding.

“North Carolina could use this money to create resilient and reliable access to Hatteras Island, a national treasure,” Hunter said. “The phrase we hear all over the South is ‘fix it first,’ and that is certainly a very sensible way to spend this money.”

Although highway funding takes up most of the space in the infrastructure bill, there are many other items that could help the South ensure it is working toward climate solutions, including:

  • $70 billion in mass-transit funding, including grants to electrify buses and to serve more rural areas
  • $6.4 billion over five years to reduce transportation emissions
  • $7.5 billion on charging stations for electric vehicles
  • $66 billion in new funds for passenger rail
  • More than $70 billion to improve the power grid, making it more resilient and better able to add renewable energy.
  • $15 billion to treat or remove lead pipes, and nearly $10 billion that can be used to tackle the problems of “forever chemicals” like PFAS that contaminate many Southern drinking-water sources.

“This infrastructure bill is certainly a landmark piece of legislation, but we must make sure it doesn’t wreck our landscape and our communities,” Pollard said. “Congress must pass ‘Build Back Better’ to make sure this infrastructure money benefits everyone. We have to use this generational opportunity to address climate change for the benefit of future generations and resist the urge to throw money at new asphalt.”