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In massive House highway bill, climate is a common refrain

The legislation would make climate change and emissions reduction a goal of nearly every applicable federal transportation program

An electric vehicle charging station in Monterey Park, Calif., on May 18.
An electric vehicle charging station in Monterey Park, Calif., on May 18. (AFP via Getty Images)

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio vowed to make fighting climate change a fundamental goal of the next highway bill his committee would take up, and certainly, the issue gets its share of mentions in the bill released Friday.

Climate change, resiliency and reducing emissions are woven throughout the bill’s 1,249 pages, with the word “climate” appearing 96 times; “resiliency,” “resilient” or “resilience” 100 times; and emissions 107 times. 

The five-year, $547 billion bill, scheduled to be marked up on Wednesday, would make climate change and emissions reduction a goal of nearly every applicable federal transportation program. The bill threads in requirements throughout that climate change be considered when planning for new infrastructure as well as when applying for grants for federal transportation dollars. 

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Summary sheets released with the bill said that, in all, it would dedicate $8.3 billion to a new program aimed at reducing carbon pollution and $6.2 billion for mitigation and resiliency improvements aimed at building infrastructure resistant to extreme weather events. It would pour $7 billion into the Transportation Alternative Program, which authorizes funding for nonautomobile-related transportation, such as transit or bicycling — a 60 percent increase, said DeFazio, D-Ore. And it includes $4 billion for electric vehicle charging stations. 

“This bill sets us up to actually reduce carbon emissions moving forward from the transportation sector, which is the biggest emitter right now, the biggest problem,” said Deron Lovaas, senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Lovaas said the bill integrates climate change even implicitly, through policies prioritizing maintenance and repair over building new highways; through heavy investments in transit, particularly zero-emissions buses, and rail; and through provisions encouraging innovation. 

“Federal transportation policy has been in a rut for decades, with bill after bill cobbled together based on previous versions leading back all the way to 1956,” he said. “This bill looks forward to the 2050s … it’s the most innovative transportation bill I’ve ever read.”

In a conference call Friday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., the chairwoman of the Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, called the bill “a down payment for the green future that addresses climate change.”

But Republicans and conservatives are skeptical. 

Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst with the libertarian Reason Foundation, said the transportation industry is still reeling from the pandemic and that investing in transit as a means of fighting climate change may not be practical policy. It’s unclear whether transit riders who have a choice of riding transit or driving their cars will return to the former, he said.

“Framing transit as a useful tool to fight climate change is only true if you have high occupancy,” he said. “Transit is not green if no one is riding it and you’re running big empty vehicles around.” 

Republicans on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who argue they were shut out of the bill-writing process, said the bill “prioritizes the Green New Deal to an extent that cripples the real infrastructure improvements communities across the country need.”

Key to DeFazio’s plans — and a core part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan — are investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure. DeFazio worked closely with the administration on that and was scheduled to speak to Biden on Friday afternoon. 

The House Democratic bill would invest $4 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure over five years, while Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan proposes investing $15 billion in EV charging infrastructure over eight years and the Senate Environment and Public Works bill would spend $2.5 billion over five years. DeFazio said the proposed $4 billion may not be the last word on EVs in the House: Both Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce have jurisdiction over EV infrastructure. 

DeFazio said Friday that while he’s not sure how the House will ultimately choose to pass his bill, it will likely be part of “the grand vision” Biden advanced with his more than $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. Unlike that proposal, however, the highway bill has a deadline: The current law, a one-year extension of the 2015 law, expires at the end of September.

While a Senate highway bill approved by the Committee on Environment and Public Works on May 26 was more modest, with a $312.4 billion plan and no rail or transit title, DeFazio said he was heartened that many of the programs in his bill are also in the Senate’s, albeit at a lower funding level. 

“We will see what we can negotiate,” he said. “There always could be the opportunity in the future to add additional funds to programs that have been created and authorized.”

Lovaas said the bill acknowledges both the need to fight climate change and the need to prepare for its impact. 

“The hard truth is that climate change is happening, and we’re anticipating more of it,” he said. “The system needs to be made more resilient in the face of that.”

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