Changing Course: Biden’s Historic Transportation Budget

Environment

Originally published on the NRDC Expert Blog.

Ships of state are notoriously difficult to steer. Thankfully, like real ships, they’re equipped with a helm that, under smart leadership, can help us change direction. One such tool is the federal budget. And, with regards to transportation, President Biden makes maximum use of his fiscal year 2022 budget proposal in an effort to get us turned in the right direction.

Let’s be clear: we need a change of direction. Whether it’s the sins of racial inequities or the looming climate crisis, we need new policies to create a cleaner, more just society.

Secretary Buttigieg. Image courtesy of PeteForAmerica campaign, with color modification.

In the Department of Transportation’s budget plan, Secretary Pete Buttigieg explains how it will tackle these long-neglected, historic crises (along with a philosophy they cite as underpinning all their work: Safety for travelers). Specifically, the administration envisions the budget functioning as an interlocking piece with the surface transportation reauthorization bill now working its way through Congress and the American Jobs Plan, unveiled two months ago. The administration is intent on working with Congress to make sure they take us in the right direction.

Advancing Racial Equity

Starting at the top, the commitment to equity is clear. The Administration proposes a new $110 million Thriving Communities program which lines up with a similar $20 billion proposal in the AJP, intended to reconnect Black and brown communities that had damaging highways or bridges rammed through them. The renamed $1 billion RAISE program (which originated as the TIGER program in the 2009 ARRA law) complements this new program with competitive grants awarded in part based on their equity benefits.

The Federal Highway Administration requested substantial funding for traditional highway programs. Implementation of this funding is a crucial determinant of whether or not it boosts equity, and FHWA clearly intends that this will be will be the case by “recogniz[ing] that our existing transportation system does not provide everyone with access to opportunity and that improvements are needed to our laws and public policies to make transportation more equitable.” This is especially important not just for the billions of dollars spent on road improvements, but also the $357.9 million requested to support metropolitan planning and $20 million for on-the-job training supportive services and disadvantaged business enterprise supportive services.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) may be the most important for improving equity given public transportation’s outsized role in delivering mobility choices to low-income people and communities of color. The budget requests funds for projects across the country as well as $550 million for four new infrastructure grant programs that would help boost equity and $30 million for research into transit needs in a post-COVID world. Additionally, the Federal Rail Administration (no surprise, given Amtrak Joe’s longtime commitment to rail) receives substantial funding and attention, including a new $625-million grant program called PRIME — Passenger Rail Improvement, Modernization, and Expansion — which along with the $375-million CRISI (Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements) program would help to deliver more rail service to more communities, providing another boost to equity.

The request also includes $13 million for the Office of Civil Rights, a substantial increase for an office focused on improving equity.

Fighting Climate Change

Electric Vehicles

In addition to highways, transit and rail, the administration is pushing for a major investment in electric vehicles, which is key so that we can transition to sales of all zero-emissions vehicles over the next 15 years. Tailpipe pollution is a top source of the carbon emissions that cause climate change, and also a key source of the toxic pollution that leads to soot and smog.

One key to this transition is ensuring that the U.S. is a global leader in manufacturing these vehicles, so it can lead to the growth of good, domestic jobs. The budget proposes to add $10 billion in new Advanced Energy Manufacturing tax credits (Internal Revenue Code Section 48C) that companies can tap to build plants to make electric vehicle batteries. Importantly, a criterion for being awarded the tax credits is an evaluation of wages to help ensure the manufacturing jobs are good, family-supporting jobs.

The Biden budget will also help slash dangerous pollution from trucks with new tax credits for businesses that replace dirty diesels with zero pollution electric trucks. And, the administration would expand Internal Revenue Code Section 30C tax credits for individuals and companies that install electric charging and hydrogen refueling stations. Over the next five years, taxpayers installing a charging station at their home would be eligible for $1,000 and commercial installations could receive up to $200,000 per charger.

And, the federal government itself would take the lead in driving this transition. Each year, the federal government buys tens of thousands of new cars and trucks. The Biden budget would allocate $600 million to federal agencies to purchase pollution-free electric vehicles and their charging stations. The purchases help build U.S. jobs because the vehicles must meet Buy America criteria for domestic production.

Low-Carbon Transportation Investments

In targeted, but important ways, the budget recognizes and responds to the crises of racial inequity and climate change. The FHWA notes that its intent on allowing for highway rights-of-way to be used for carbon reduction purposes such as siting of renewable energy projects. The Surface Transportation Block Grant Program, funded at $12.1 billion, and the small percentage set aside for Transportation Alternatives (i.e., bicycle and pedestrian projects) can help reduce emissions since it can be invested in an array of alternatives to new road-building. States as well as metropolitan planning organizations should be encouraged by FHWA to exercise that flexibility more than in the past. The budget also includes $2.5 billion for the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program (CMAQ), a 1991-vintage program which supports projects that reduce air pollution — including greenhouse gases — from transportation sources.

The $13.5 billion for FTA helps fight climate change. This includes not just reducing the deferred maintenance backlog for systems — estimated at $105 billion — but also funding for new projects as well as a $50 million competitive grant program to improve system resilience and adaptation to climate change.

Throughout this budget there are references to “fix-it-first,” which is an important concept that ought to drive our surface transport decisions over the coming years, and which is also addresses climate by shifting to required repairs and away from elective highway-building. We need to fix the roads and bridges we have, not waste money on new highways that will lead to more congestion and pollution. “Fix-it-first” and “fix-it-right” are overdue principles and we need to hold DOT accountable for sticking with them.

Some Concerns

No proposal is perfect, and that’s the case with this budget, as well. On its own, it would not deal with the existing imbalance between highway and transit funding; leveling up support for transit to equal highways should be a priority for addressing both racial equity and climate change.  Only in combination with the American Jobs Plan would that imbalance begin to be addressed.

And while the overall budget is an inspiring document, two specific requests are worth flagging. First, the $364 million for Essential Air Service. As I wrote about a decade ago, this yearly subsidy is wasteful and carbon-intensive, and should be revisited given national policy priorities. Second, it’s unclear if the $623 million in National Highway Traffic Safety grants come with strings attached so they don’t fund police enforcement activities that disproportionately harm Black and brown drivers, as described in this report authored by my colleague Rabi Abonour. That needs to be clarified.

Taking the Budget Helm

The bottom line with the FY 2022 proposal for transportation is that — combined with the American Jobs Plan and a historic surface transportation reauthorization law — would put us on a new course as a country, towards a more stable climate, more racially equitable communities, and top-notch infrastructure. Now Congress needs to act so we can get moving in the right direction.


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