Rebuilding the economy with climate-smart transportation investments

Our nation has the opportunity to rebuild its struggling economy in ways that can create jobs, advance climate solutions, and keep America moving.

C2ES recently outlined steps Congress can take to help put people to work while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and strengthening climate resilience. Transportation bills now working their way through the House and Senate provide an ideal opportunity to enact some of these recommendations.

Sustained investments in resilient highways, bridges, rail, and transit would not only modernize the U.S. transportation system but reduce the amount of carbon dioxide coming from the highest-emitting sector of the U.S. economy, all while helping underserved communities with limited access to public transportation. With bipartisan support for long-term, climate-smart investments, we can build back our economy and strengthen it for decades to come.

There’s no doubt that investments in transportation infrastructure are badly needed. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the total investment gap for surface transportation is expected to be $1.1 trillion through 2025, with an additional $3.2 trillion from 2026 to 2040. Climate change will exacerbate weaknesses in our chronically underfunded and aging transportation systems: Flooding can damage roads, wash away supports, and inundate railroads and subways. Extreme heat can buckle roads and rails and limit safe construction hours.

These severe weather impacts also threaten human health and safety and can cause service disruptions with significant economic impacts, especially for communities heavily reliant on public transit. And, despite decreased ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic, long-term demand for mobility is expected to increase as city populations grow. Capital investments will be needed for transit systems to keep pace.

In the short term, eliminating the funding gap on existing road and bridge maintenance could create as many as 5 million jobs while enhancing resilience to climate threats. With proactive design, these investments could also help reduce emissions by easing traffic congestion. Congress should ensure that new highway construction is charging infrastructure-ready, so electric vehicles can more easily integrate into the nation’s transportation system; address the growing $90 billion backlog of repair needs in public transit systems; and help defray operational costs for transit agencies during the pandemic.

Congress can address these needs through legislation succeeding the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which is set to expire September 30. Bills already approved by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and introduced by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure could soon come before the chambers.

These or other transportation-related measures should build protections against climate threats into both new and existing infrastructure, making it and the communities it serves more resilient for decades to come. Critically, designs and plans need to take into account downscaled climate projections, not just rely on historical data. Infrastructure should be made to withstand a range of future scenarios. Examples of climate-smart investments include:

  • Building resilience into systems by implementing multiple modes or routes of transit, especially in communities that largely rely on one.
  • Designing infrastructure to be adaptable or have multiple uses. Examples include bridges that can be adjusted for various water levels, or pervious road surfaces that minimize stormwater runoff.
  • Employing nature-based features such as green infrastructure, which can minimize the exposure of transportation systems to severe weather and can be phased in over time.

Stronger federal support is also needed to get public transit system expansions off the ground. These expansions should increase access to mobility, improve air quality, and enhance economic opportunities in historically underserved communities—all of which enhances their resilience.

Cities are already working toward these goals in their public transit planning. New York City’s Street Ambassador Program, for example, seeks to build relationships with communities by deploying representatives to gathering spaces to collect input on residents’ transit needs and ideas. Other cities are also deploying electric buses and micro-mobility options in “transit deserts.” And they are prioritizing investments in affordable housing near new rail stations, to enhance transit access for low-income residents, like in Seattle. FAST Act reauthorization should support cities in expanding public transit with the needs of underserved communities at the forefront.

By investing in equitable and climate-forward transportation infrastructure, now and into the future, we can help rebuild the nation’s economy. Better yet, climate-smart investments that build resilience into infrastructure can strengthen our economic foundation for years to come. Finally, by keeping equity in mind through design and expansion processes, we can enhance the resilience of underserved communities, making mobility sustainable and resilient for all.