Build highways or fight climate change? Biden Administration can't have both

The ink from President Biden’s signature on “The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022” was hardly dry when his underlings began to undercut the most critical parts of the legislation.

Of course, the title of that act was only so much political branding. The Democrats who pushed the bill to passage understood that inflation was on the minds of many Americans, and their seeming to do something about it was intended to help them survive the midterms with their majorities in Congress intact – at least in the Senate, if not in the House. The bill itself, they understood, would have little if any impact on inflation.

However, the legislation did make meaningful steps toward combating climate change. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the bill includes “$369 billion in climate and clean energy investments” and is expected to “reduce US greenhouse gas emissions some 40% below 2005 levels by 2030.” The legislation didn’t go nearly as far as it needed to, given the scope of the climate crisis, and passage was secured only after a promise to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the coal lobby’s favorite legislator, to make it easier to issue permits for fossil-fuel projects. However, the bill did at least take a few steps in the right direction; steps that can be built upon if or when American voters elect officials more concerned about saving the planet than massaging their base of corporate donors.

But less than a month after the act became law, Biden’s nominee for federal highway administrator, Shailen Bhatt, tipped the administration’s hand as to the lack of seriousness with which it accorded its responsibility to address climate change.

At his confirmation hearing on September 14, Bhatt assured senators that he was no wild-eyed environmental extremist, but rather was perfectly comfortable with widening existing highways and building new ones. Bhatt said he favors an “all of the above” approach to transportation, and part of that “all” is pouring more pavement.

“I’ve added capacity in every state I’ve worked in,” said Bhatt, who formerly headed the transportation departments of Delaware and Colorado, as quoted in the Washington Post.

Bhatt’s declaration of fealty to expanding highways runs headlong into the spirit of the Inflation Reduction Act. It is well known the transportation sector is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, most of that coming from personal vehicle exhaust, and that building more highways will only encourage more people to drive.

Still, “all of the above” has tended to be the approach at all levels of government to transportation development, at least since advocates of mass transit gained enough clout, starting in the 1960s, to gain a seat at the table (even if that seat was a highchair). The tendency of the pro-transit organizations, led by the American Public Transit Association, has been contentment with letting highways take the lion’s share of funding for transportation as long as transit gets thrown sufficient scraps, with federal and state funding for highways historically four times that for transit. 

But that approach was a failure in the 1960s and every decade since, and it’s an even worse one today. Over the past half century, the modest expansions of public transit across the country have been dwarfed by the massive growth of highways, with over 48,000 miles of Interstate highways alone built since 1956. The highways drove sprawling development, with transit agencies always falling behind in an effort to serve it, if they even tried. Not only did the highways encourage driving; they made it a necessity for the residents of far-flung communities whose only option for mobility was getting behind the wheel. In addition, urban highways frequently were cut through low-income communities of color, destroying entire neighborhoods and subjecting residents to the toxic effects of vehicle exhaust.

If Bhatt and his fellow highway enthusiasts think increased adoption of electric vehicles is going to make driving hunky-dory, they need to think again. The more gasoline-powered vehicles that can be removed from the traffic mix, the better – but for years to come they will constitute the bulk of cars and trucks on the road. The infrastructure for EVs in most of the country is in its infancy, and charging stations are few and far between. In addition, merely switching from gas cars to EVs will do nothing to ease congestion in metropolitan areas, and an emphasis on electric cars instead of mass transit perpetuates car dependence and sprawl. Also, EVs are only as environmentally friendly as the fuel generating their power, and currently only 20 percent of electricity in the United States is generated by renewable fuels. Until much more electricity comes from renewable sources, EVs will have only a modest role in cutting carbon emissions.

For the foreseeable future, the most effective way to reduce transportation’s carbon footprint is to shut down highway construction and instead make huge investments in mass transit. “Federal policy must make it harder to build new roads, recognizing that highways are fossil fuel infrastructure as surely as oil and gas pipelines are and that their construction often directly harms neighborhoods where black and brown people live, so that suburban residents get a faster trip,” writes Steven Higashide in his book Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run and Win the Fight for Effective Transit. Expanded mass transit must be accompanied by regional planning that concentrates development where it can be served effectively by transit, rather than assuming most people will drive.

Yes, Bhatt is a highway guy, but as part of an administration that gives at least lip service to fighting climate change, perhaps he could broaden his vision and see fit to champion an unwinding of the government’s obsession with more highway lanes as the answer to transportation mobility.

Back in the 1990s, an organization called the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium arose to call for a full stop to new highway construction. It enjoyed modest success in blocking new highways but, unfortunately, it lasted just over a decade, and no other organization filled its shoes. The transit lobby rolled on, content to let highways grow so long as they got their (much smaller) piece of the pie.

However, if the Biden administration is really serious about fighting climate change, it needs to put the brakes on highways and make major investments in less-polluting – and in short order, non-polluting – forms of transportation. It needs to reduce sprawl and congestion and invest in transportation that will revitalize urban areas and better serve low-income users and communities of color. 

And since it appears the administration won’t do as much as necessary on its own, a stronger pro-transit, pro-environment, anti-highway movement will need to arise to force its hand. We’re still waiting for it.

The Biden administration’s lack of a consistent vision means it sometimes stumbles into doing the right thing. Hard on the heels of Bhatt’s rhapsodizing about highways before the Senate, his future bosses at the Transportation Department announced that Detroit would receive $105 million to tear down a mile-long segment of Interstate 375, a highway that shattered a Black community when it was built in the early 1960s. As I wrote in the July 2021 Washington Socialist, the idea of tearing down highways has gained currency in recent years and decades, motivated by environmental and racial justice concerns.

Perhaps the right hand of the administration needs to tell its left hand what it’s doing.  Instead of building highways that might get torn down later, how about simply not building them in the first place?


DSA member Bill Mosley was a public affairs specialist for the US Department of Transportation for 31 years and has been active in mass transit advocacy.

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