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Biden’s infrastructure plan is out. Here are our thoughts

Early this morning, the Biden administration released the American Jobs Plan, President Biden’s infrastructure proposal. There’s a lot to be excited about, including massively increased funding for transit and passenger rail—but as we wrote last week, how we target the funding matters as much as how much we spend. Here’s our take on the proposal. 

The White House, September 2019. Photo by dconvertini on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

All of the funding included in President Biden’s proposal  is meant to sit on top of existing federal programs and the upcoming surface reauthorization, not replace that policy-making process, according to a White House briefing our director Beth Osborne was invited to attend earlier today. 

More money for public transit and rail combined than highways 

We have never seen this much money for public transportation and passenger rail included in a presidential infrastructure proposal. President Biden’s plan includes $85 billion to “modernize transit agencies,” meaning both maintaining existing transit infrastructure and expanding service to bring “bus, bus rapid transit, and rail service to communities and neighborhoods across the country.” 

This is huge: investing in public transportation is critical to increasing equitable and affordable access to jobs and services post-pandemic, reducing our carbon emissions (especially since transportation is the largest source of U.S. emissions), and powering our economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet there’s no mention of recurring federal operating support for transit—something public transportation needs in order to provide frequent, convenient, and desirable transit service. 

In addition to public transit, Biden proposes $80 billion for Amtrak to address the repair backlog, modernize the Northeast Corridor and other rail routes, make new connections between cities by rail, and update existing grant and loan programs. The U.S. hasn’t made a substantial, long-term commitment to passenger rail in almost a century, making this funding critically important to building the passenger rail network the U.S. needs to improve access and reduce carbon emissions. 

There’s no specific mention of preserving Amtrak’s long-distance routes—something the rail corporation has fought to dismantle in recent years. However, the proposal does call for improving existing corridors and connecting new city pairs. Amtrak’s long-distance network provides critical connections to rural America and for people unable to traverse the country by car or by air, and is even more essential post-pandemic with the continued loss of essential air service and multiple long-distance bus companies cutting routes and even shutting down permanently. 

Road repair is discussed as a priority but the devil is in the detail 

Biden’s plan includes $115 billion to “fix it better” for our bridges, highways, roads, and “main streets.” This funding will include formula and competitive funding. We love the mention of fix it first (one of T4America’s three principles for transportation policy), but one of the stated goals of this funding—in addition to improving air quality and limiting emissions—is to “reduce congestion” and “modernize,” which usually means the same thing.

“Reducing congestion” is a fool’s errand. As we found in our report the Congestion Con, widening and building new highways only makes traffic worse. If “fix it better” means widening highways at the same time we repair them, the Biden plan will only induce more people to drive—making congestion even worse than what it was before, and putting our carbon emissions on an irreversible upwards trajectory. 

To truly focus on repair, the actual legislative language would require serious policy changes to ensure that this money isn’t diverted to road expansion. Our 2019 report Repair Priorities found that states spend a significant portion of highway formula funding to build new roads, creating costly new maintenance liabilities in the form of new roads and lane-miles—even though they are allowed (welcome, even!) to spend that money on maintenance. Why? Because there’s no requirement that they do so. 

Billions for repairing damage caused by urban highways but not enough focus on preserving housing affordability 

The construction of the Interstate Highway System in many cases led to the intentional demolition and dividing of many communities of color across the country. It’s long-past time for federal funding to repair the health, financial, physical, and emotional damage wrought on families in these neighborhoods—which is why we released a comprehensive policy package to this effect a few months ago with our partners at Third Way.

President Biden proposes $20 billion “for a new program that will reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access.” While the broader plan has very interesting proposals on providing more affordable housing,  this specific proposal is missing any discussion or policy to ensure that removing highways or building connections between them doesn’t make adjacent housing unaffordable—a huge reason why many communities suffering the burden of these highways actually want them to stay. A place based approach will be needed connected to any such project.

Biden’s $20 billion for urban highways includes funding for research on “advanced pavements that recycle carbon dioxide.” While recycling carbon dioxide is a good goal, it barely touches on the health issues that our highway system places disproprotionately on neighborhoods of color. The air pollution generated by urban highways has caused massive and devastating health consequences for communities living near them. That pollution comes from vehicles, pavement (that emits on hot days), tires and more. We need better pavement but also less pavement. 

Also, if the $115 billion for highways funds expansions, then we could be further dividing and displacing people (usually people of color) at the same time we’re fixing past damage caused by these projects in the past. We need to do better going forward, not create new assets that continue to create the same damage.

$20 billion for “safety” but nothing explicitly prioritizing safety over speed

Biden’s $115 billion for “modernizing” roads includes $20 billion to “improve road safety for all users, including increases to existing safety programs and a new Safe Streets for All program to fund state and local ‘vision zero’ plans and other improvements to reduce crashes and fatalities, especially for cyclists and pedestrians.” 

This is really important.  We hope to see a program like this paired with specific requirements like those in the House of Representatives’ surface transportation reauthorization proposal, passed last summer. That includes Complete Streets and context-sensitive designs when repairing or constructing roads surrounded by development—meaning roads that aren’t highways and have homes and businesses along them. 

With the number of people killed while walking or using mobility-assistive devices skyrocketing—increasing by 45 percent over the past decade, as we found in our new report, Dangerous by Design—we accept nothing less than design standards that ensure that safety is prioritized over vehicle speed. Because street design that ensures high speed driving over all else is to blame for the skyrocketing number of people killed on our roadways. 

Details matter and more to come

This just scratches the surface of the proposal. We have failed to mention so many other exciting proposals. For example, there is $174 billion dedicated to stoking a domestic electric vehicle industry, placing 500,000 electric vehicle chargers, and replacing gas cars and buses with clean electric vehicles. There are proposals for more affordable housing, eliminating exclusionary zoning and harmful land use policies, broadband deployment and more. We will review those provisions too in conjunction with our parent organization, Smart Growth America, soon.

Right now, suffice it to say that there is a lot to be excited about in this infrastructure proposal. There are billions for public transit and passenger rail (more than what’s allocated for highways), a focus on repairing existing highways and making them safer, and funding dedicated to repairing the damage wrought on Black and brown communities by urban highways. 

Now we need to watch for the details to ensure that the funding proposed goes to the exciting goals cited and to ensure that these billions will not just be pumped into existing federal transportation programs not designed to achieve these outcomes. 

6 Comments

  1. Reply

    jj m (jjIM_ bUSH

    2 weeks ago

    Okay… more money for transit. That’s a step in the right direction, but it’s nowhere close to being enough to close the real need. Throughout this country, there are thousands of jurisdictions with millions of people who do not have a safe pedestrian environment that will allow them to get to these “improved” transit service. What is clearly needed is a much LARGER investment in pedestrian safety measures,as well as a significant investment in public transit. We need sidewalks that are safe and accessible–and we need them NOW Many people, especially ones with disabilities, have been advocating for it, but it sounds they are being ignored, all in the name of the the almighty automobile, which at least 25 percent of the population don’t have (because they can’t afford one) or don’t drive (due to a disability). It is time our elected officials actively listen to what they are hearing from us–we need better transit and better sidewalks–not more roads!

  2. Reply

    Clay Richman

    5 days ago

    We have become a “fast-moving” nation with a minority of drivers abiding by posted speed limits, consistently driving without headlights on and not signaling for turns, especially left turns. An attitude of “making up lost time” while driving fast is costly for every person.

    Thank you

  3. Reply

    Elery Keene

    4 days ago

    Comments from Elery Keene – Winslow Maine
    I strongly support improving the condition of our railroads so that both passenger trains and freight trains can move faster on them. Railroad trains use only about 20% as much diesel fuels per ton of freight as do the trailer trucks that move freight on our roads. Several years ago we increased the allowable weight limit for trucks on our roads and have still not completely upgraded our roads and bridges to carry this weight. This increased weight makes it cost more to maintain our roads because of the more rapid damage caused by these weights. I don’t think the truck owners are paying their fair share of the cost of maintaining our roads. Our railroad owners have not done well at maintaining the condition of our railroads which is why the trains have to move so slowly. Some states, including the state of Maine, have been helping the pay the cost of improving the rails so that passenger trains can move fast enough to attract people to ride on trains instead of airplanes or using their own cars. This reduces the amount of fossil fuel used to move both people and freight. We need a good plan for how money should be spent to move people from place to place in more efficient ways that use less fossil fuel and reduce global warming. Elery Keene. . .

  4. Reply

    Len Beyea

    4 days ago

    This is a good beginning, and thanks to T4A and other organizations for monitoring progress of the bill and lobbying for appropriate changes.
    It’s difficult to steer state and local policy on street design, zoning, and transportation, but to the extent the bill can impose some parameters it may help – the bulk of spending on streets and other transportation sector comes from states and municipalities. We can all contribute by monitoring and organizing public input in our own states and communities.

  5. Reply

    Richard

    4 days ago

    The plan is a positive start. How will it be implemented? The FAST Act is in the process of being reauthorized using the 116th congress HR 2 as a template for example. How will the Biden plan be integrated into the legislative process? Will it be separated and assigned to various committees then put back together again in an omnibus bill of sorts? Anyone have a take on how the House and Senate will begin work on this effort? THX RAR

  6. Reply

    barry

    3 days ago

    to some extent we need to prioritize getting a lot of this proposal actually passed in the divided Congress rather than complaining about some detail or another. In the Northeast, I hope it can be integrated with our regional Transportation Climate Initiative that has primary goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions but where there is some indications the authorities here may depend almost entirely on electrification of cars, trucks, buses (not even our commuter trains!)

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