If America is dominated by auto culture and the reputation of the open road, there is a big reason for it: In the past 65 years, the United States has spent nearly $ 10 trillion in public spending on freeways and roads, and only a quarter of that that on subways, buses and passenger rails.
However, President Biden’s $ 2 trillion infrastructure plan unveiled this week represents one of the most ambitious efforts to challenge the centrality of the automobile in American life by proposing that federal spending be much more focused on public transportation steer and get more people out of their cars. Experts say transformation is necessary to tackle climate change but could prove extremely difficult in practice.
As part of his plan, Mr. Biden plans to spend $ 85 billion over eight years to help cities modernize and expand their mass transit systems, doubling federal spending on public transportation every year. There’s also $ 80 billion to upgrade and expand intercity rail networks like Amtrak. That would be one of the largest investments in passenger trains in decades.
And while Mr. Biden’s plan is $ 115 billion for roads, the focus would be on repairing aging highways and bridges rather than expanding the road network. This, too, is a shift in priorities: in recent years, states have spent around half of their motorway money on building new or extending existing roads, which studies have shown that often only encourages more driving and does little to alleviate traffic congestion.
“There is no question that the proportion of funding for transit and rail in Biden’s proposal is far greater than in similar laws we’ve seen in our lives,” said Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “It’s a dramatic change.”
When Congress writes billions of dollars in new transportation bills every few years, about four-fifths of the money typically goes to highways and roads, a pattern that has been around since the early 1980s. For many, this inequality makes sense. After all, around 80 percent of Americans travel by car or pickup truck, and only 3 percent by local transport.
However, some experts say this reverses causality: Decades of government investment in roads and highways – beginning with the creation of the highway system in 1956 – have turned most cities and suburbs into sprawling, car-centered environments where this can be dangerous too On foot or by bike. In addition, other reliable transit options are rare.
“We force almost everyone to drive,” said Catherine Ross, a transportation planning expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “The decisions that individuals make are very much shaped by the infrastructure we have built.”
Transportation now accounts for a third of the greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet in America. Most of it comes from hundreds of millions of gasoline-burning cars and SUVs. While Mr Biden is proposing $ 174 billion to promote cleaner electric vehicles, experts have said that helping Americans drive less is less important to meet government climate goals.
“Far too many Americans do not have access to affordable public transportation, and those who do have frequent delays and disruptions,” Biden said Wednesday. “We have the power to change that.”
But Mr. Biden, a longtime Amtrak driver and advocate, will face hurdles in trying to make the United States more train and bus friendly.
His plan has yet to come through Congress, where lawmakers in rural and suburban counties often prefer money for roads. Nationwide, new transit projects were plagued by rising costs. The coronavirus pandemic has also led many Americans to shun subways and buses in favor of private vehicles, and it remains unclear when or if transit drivers will recover.
The Biden government may also have limited ability to influence the actions of state and local governments, which still make up the majority of transportation spending. Many important urban planning decisions – for example building dense apartments near city train stations – are made on site and can determine whether transit systems thrive or have problems.
“States are the emperors of transportation,” said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, a transit advocate. “But so much of the culture of our current program is based on what came out of the Department of Transportation, so when the Biden administration says it’s time to turn it is an important message.”
Analysts warned that the White House has not yet revealed any important details of the plan. Its effectiveness may depend on how the proposal is incorporated into the transportation bills currently being processed in Congress, which could adjust the balance of funds between highways and transit or establish conditions for the use of federal funds by states.
Still, some transit agencies say a large infusion of federal funds could be transformative. Many urban transportation systems are more than half a century old and are struggling to raise enough funding to fill their growing backlog of needed repairs. This usually leaves little money left over to consider major new expansions.
In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority needs government support to build a $ 2 billion plan to expand rail travel to King of Prussia, a fast-growing job center, and a $ 1.8 billion plan to modernize aging trolleys advancing the city Andrew Busch, an agency spokesman.
In the Bay Area, federal funding would be needed to expand the Bay Area’s rapid transit rail system to San Jose and establish a regional network of carpooling, said Randy Rentschler, director of law and public affairs for the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Mr Biden has also proposed spending $ 80 billion on modernizing and expanding intercity rail services like Amtrak. Currently, Amtrak’s busiest route is the Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC and Boston, which Amtrak says will require $ 38 billion for upgrades and repairs.
Other cities have rare and often inconvenient connections. For example, to travel by train from Cincinnati to Chicago, there is only one train per day. The journey takes nine hours and the train departs at 1:41 am
Amtrak has proposed significantly expanding its network with $ 25 billion by 2035, adding 30 routes to cities like Las Vegas and Nashville that are not currently served by intercity railways, as well as service on 20 routes to cities like Houston and Cincinnati to improve. Amtrak claimed that annual driver numbers would increase from 32 million today to 52 million, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from shifting car and air travel.
Attempts to expand America’s transit and rail systems, however, could run into pitfalls.
Building the infrastructure in the US has become notoriously expensive and difficult compared to other countries. In California, a plan for a high-speed line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, funded by the Obama administration with federal funding, has faced repeated delays and cost overruns, and it remains unclear whether any subsection will be completed before 2030. The Biden’s proposal mentions this cost problem but is vague about how to fix it.
Another challenge will be to ensure that the funds are used for the most effective projects. “When a lot of money rains from above, states and municipalities will do whatever it takes to get that money,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of politics and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, a non-partisan research center in Washington. “Sometimes that money goes into projects that aren’t the best projects.”
Mr Lewis noted that improving the national transportation system is not always a matter of laying new cement and steel. Often times the most effective changes are operational, e.g. For example, charging people during rush hour to avoid traffic jams, lowering speed limits to improve road safety, or increasing the frequency of bus routes to make them more useful to drivers.
Some experts have also questioned whether the von Biden government will attempt to curb local governments’ preference for major highway expansion projects, which critics say will further deepen the nation’s reliance on automobiles.
The government has signaled a more skeptical attitude towards highways. On Thursday, the Federal Highway Administration took the unusual step of halting a planned expansion of Interstate 45 near Houston amid concerns about increasing air pollution and the displacement of black and Hispanic communities. Regardless, the Biden government’s infrastructure proposal includes $ 20 billion to improve road safety, including for pedestrians, and another $ 20 billion to “reconnect parts of the city” damaged by previous highway projects.
However, it remains to be seen how these programs will work. For example, without strict conditions from the federal government, some states could simply take federal money for road repair and safety and then use their own state funds to further upgrade the highways.
“If that money doesn’t come with real policy changes,” said Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, “then states will just keep doing what they always have done that is not fair or environmentally friendly.” . ”