Photo Credit: Mark Hough

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Funding Our Future: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Can Accelerate Net-Zero Transportation — Or Hit the Brakes

How states, cities, and civil society can use once-in-a-decade funding to reduce emissions, improve public health, and boost local economies.

Lately, the shortcomings of the US transportation system have become front page news almost daily. The invasion of Ukraine has laid bare the impacts of global oil dependence, with gasoline and diesel prices reaching record highs.

Road congestion has roared back as people return to the office, while public transit systems are still seeing much lower ridership than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the abrupt pandemic-driven shift in our lifestyles also gave us a small taste of what is possible if we invest in a better, more modern transportation system — shared streets lined with outdoor dining, cleaner air, less traffic, and more affordable transportation for all Americans.

A new report from the America Is All In coalition, authored by RMI, shows that institutions at every level of society, including policymakers, corporations, and civil society, have a role to play in creating a clean transportation system. America Is All In, which RMI co-leads, comprises more than 4,000 nonfederal institutions committed to climate action, and the coalition’s new report provides tactics for deploying available federal funding to electrify vehicles and improve mobility for a wide variety of communities across the country.

Right now, the federal government is deploying billions of dollars across the United States for transportation-related infrastructure projects through the bipartisan infrastructure law, also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), to create a cleaner, more resilient, and more equitable transportation system. This funding, along with current policies and actions, has the potential to help decarbonize the transportation sector and reduce transportation-specific emissions by up to 19 percent. If states, businesses, and civil society spend this money in ways that reduce emissions, such as on EV charging and public transit, they can also improve the health and vibrancy of their communities.

However, progress is not guaranteed. The Georgetown Climate Center found that the funding could actually increase emissions if not used strategically — and instead spent on traditional transportation projects, such as highway expansions. Importantly, federal money spent on climate-forward solutions can help unlock additional nonfederal funding to make more projects a reality — whether from state or city government matching funds, private-sector investment opportunities, or both.

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Using IIJA Investments to Kick-Start the Clean Transition

According to a recent survey, most governments, communities, and individuals around the country want to electrify their vehicles, but the infrastructure is not yet built to support the entire country. The IIJA does invest billions of dollars in infrastructure, but for the most part, it doesn’t require states and cities to use the funding for climate projects. So, the challenge is: how can we use this once-in-a-decade funding opportunity to address climate change?

The transportation sector offers a particularly promising opportunity for investment, as it accounts for one-fifth of US greenhouse gas emissions, and the infrastructure package allots roughly $600 billion for transportation projects. That funding can be used for climate projects like public transit, EV charging infrastructure, and pedestrian- or bike-friendly streets. These types of investments don’t just save money down the line, they also make electrification solutions cost-effective and reliable for everyone.

Investing in clean transportation projects creates a wide range of additional benefits, improving health, safety, equity, and the economy. For example, Denver’s seven-year-old bus fleet, the Bustang, has already provided the city with quantifiable climate and health benefits. Since building the fleet, the Colorado Department of Transportation estimates that 100,000 cars are no longer on Colorado’s highways and 460,000 metric tons of carbon have been slashed from the state’s annual emissions.

Every Organization Can Make an Impact

Each one of us has a role to play in ensuring the nation uses these infrastructure dollars right. America Is All In is leading that effort by providing a guidebook for how states, local governments, businesses, and members of civil society can each help the nation make climate-smart transportation investments.

Businesses and civil society can take direct action to support clean transportation solutions. Companies can reduce their own emissions through electrifying fleets and providing employee incentives for transit. Civil society organizations like faith groups and cultural institutions can educate people on the benefits of clean transportation — while universities and other educational institutions play a unique role in training the workforce building our climate-resilient future.

And these organizations have a critical role to play in engaging with state and local policymakers to advocate for clean transportation solutions — focusing on ways to localize and increase benefits across the country.

Our new report lays out more than a dozen specific tactics different groups can use to drive momentum for clean transportation solutions, including related resources and a table describing available funding opportunities.

This new, historic influx of federal funding for clean transportation is a pivotal opportunity to get our communities back on track for a cleaner, safer, healthier, and happier future. We can choose to build the communities we want to live and work in, and now is our best chance to do it. In this decisive decade for the climate crisis — a timed test that we only get to take once — there is not a moment to waste.