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The Senate's Transportation Plan Reckons With Climate Change

In an era of partisan bickering, infrastructure has long been viewed as something all of Washington could agree on. Everyone needs to get around; everyone agrees America’s roads, bridges, and other bits are in sore need of an upgrade. And while it’s taken a while to get here, this week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved a $287 billion plan to slap the United States back into shape. More surprising, though, is that the bill—supported by all 11 Republicans on the committee—includes a section titled “Climate Change.”

Yes, the America's Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019 dedicates more than 100 pages—and more to the point, about $10 billion—to addressing how the country’s transportation network both fuels and suffers from the effects of a warming planet. It would offer funding for electric vehicle charging stations, pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly street design, reducing diesel emissions in ports, infrastructure resilient to floods and heat waves, and more. If passed, it would be the first transportation-minded legislation to deal with the changing climate—even though no sector of the American economy produces more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation.

The bill is a long way from becoming law. It has to go through the House and then through President Trump; lawmakers also will have to figure out where to find those billions of dollars. But for environmental groups, getting this bill out of committee alone is a win. “Republicans have actually said ‘climate change,’ and put money towards it,” says Ann Shikany, who focuses on infrastructure for the National Resources Defense Council. “It’s a fantastic first step.”

For all the bill does to address climate change—even allocating some money for creating bike-friendly evacuation plans—it does a lot more to reinforce the existing transportation system that’s such a big part of the problem. Of the total proposed funding, the climate bit is just 3.48 percent. “$259 billion—or 90 percent—will go directly to our roads and bridges,” committee chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) says. And while those hunks of metal and concrete are in sore need of a fix, putting them back in shape won’t do much to stop the storms that are coming for them.

The money the bill does put toward climate change funds plans to address both limiting transportation’s impact on the environment, and the environment’s impact on transportation. In the first group, it allocates $1 billion for enlarging the charging network needed to support all the electric cars that automakers (and regulators, at least in California) are hoping to sell. That’s far from nothing: Last year, the Center for American Progress estimated the US needs to spend $2.3 billion more than planned to support a robust national fleet of EVs.

The legislation offers another $3 billion for carbon reduction programs, incentivizing plans “to facilitate the use of vehicles or modes of travel that result in lower transportation emissions per person-mile traveled.” That last bit deemphasizes single-occupant vehicles and offers up more moolah for congestion-cutting ideas to boost carpooling, cycling, walking, and public transportation. It even allows communities to tear down underused highways and replace them with surface streets and green space.

There’s just as much money—$4.9 billion—for mitigating the impacts of climate change as trying to prevent them. Those effects are multiplying: Nebraska’s highway system alone suffered $100 million in damage from the flooding that plagued the Midwest this spring, says Shana Udvardy, a climate resilience analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Heat waves can wreck pavement. Aircraft and trains have to slow or stop service in extreme heat.

Beyond the money, the bill defines two important terms for the first time. Resilience here means “the ability to anticipate, prepare for, or adapt to conditions or withstand, respond to, or recover rapidly from disruptions.” Natural infrastructure “uses, restores, or emulates natural ecological processes,” with the aim of limiting the effects of things like storm surge and heat. Putting the terms in writing provides a kind of validation for those ideas. Groups seeking federal funds won’t have to explain why resilience matters, or why they want to create absorptive green spaces instead of a seawall. “This is encouraging different thinking,” Udvardy says. “It’s recognizing that there are impacts to transportation, and that we need to plan for the future.”

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