A massive new transportation bill with bipartisan backing contains major climate change components in a historic first that could have implications for decarbonizing national infrastructure.
Dubbed “America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act,” the highway bill from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) approved Tuesday would put billions towards combatting greenhouse gas emissions and promoting resiliency. Advocates have pointed to infrastructure as a key area for climate action and the bill could serve as a model for future efforts.
President Donald Trump appeared to endorse the bill in a tweet on Tuesday, potentially clearing the way for it to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.
“Senate is working hard on America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act,” the president wrote. “Will have BIG IMPACT on our highways and roads all across our Nation. Interest strong from Republicans and Democrats. Do I hear the beautiful word, BIPARTISAN? Get it done. I am with you!”
The new bill is the largest of its kind in congressional history and would provide $287 billion for surface transportation programs over the next five years. It replaces the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act that expires in 2020 and represents a 27% increase over levels in that legislation. But the bill also contains a notable emphasis on climate adaptation and mitigation.
For the first time, the bill contains a climate tier. More than $10 billion of the total would go to boosting climate resilience in major infrastructure projects, along with reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That includes establishing a $3 billion carbon reduction incentive program, which E&E News reports would go to state projects that help lower vehicle emissions stemming from highways. A $4.9 billion resilience program is also part of the package, with the goal of prepping roads and bridges against extreme weather.
Electric vehicles are also a consideration; $1 billion would go toward installing charging stations along certain highways, along with stations for hydrogen and natural gas. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) — the process of capturing waste carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere — would benefit from the bill as well.
Proponents of proposals like the Green New Deal — a plan to radically decarbonize the entire U.S. economy — have said a final proposal for such a deal could take the form of infrastructure legislation, among other components. While the new transportation bill is a far cry from such a plan, it still serves as an indicator that climate-friendly efforts are possible with support from both sides of the aisle.
The bill has bipartisan support from an array of backers. EPW Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) notably gave the measure his blessing in a statement.
“America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act will grow the economy, make our roads safer and enhance quality of life for the American people,” Barrasso said. He indicated support for the streamlining of permitting projects in particular; Republicans have pushed for a reduction in federal “red tape” so that state projects can move forward more quickly. Barrasso also supports the additional funding for CCS, which has enjoyed backing from Republicans.
Democrats meanwhile highlighted the package’s climate measures. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a noted climate hawk, has said the climate action components of the bill do not go far enough but that the legislation offers an improvement over prior efforts. Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE) meanwhile praised the bill’s climate emphasis, arguing that it would “move our country toward a safer, more connected, efficient and climate-friendly transportation system.
Climate advocates themselves have offered praise for some measures in the bill while criticizing other elements, like the permit streamlining. That component would allow for issuing one single environmental impact statement for large infrastructure projects, as opposed to going through various parts of government. Trump has advocated for this type of streamlined approach, which opponents say will roll-back environmental safeguards.
“Transportation is now the largest source of carbon pollution, and it’s encouraging that there’s bipartisan agreement to pursue pro-climate policies,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, chief program officer at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in a statement. But, she caveated, “rollbacks of environmental protections” and other elements of the bill pose a hurdle for environmental advocates.
After receiving EPW backing, the Senate Finance Committee will now look into how to pay for the legislation, which could prove divisive — some have proposed raising the federal tax on gasoline, a move likely to be opposed by conservatives. In a nod to the bill’s potential longterm success, however, Barrasso said that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is open to moving the bill forward before the end of the year.