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Critics say infrastructure projects won't make a big enough impact on climate change


If you're commuting these days, your trip might soon get worse before it gets better. That's because Washington's beginning to dole out hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending to improve roads, bridges and transit systems. That means a lot of construction projects that could likely snarl traffic. President Biden promises the additional half a trillion dollars will be transformational. But as NPR's David Schaper reports, not all transportation planners agree.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: If you're sitting in your car right now or on a bus or a train, look around. Are you speeding along or just crawling? Riding smoothly or bouncing into potholes? How safe is that bridge you're about to cross? What about all the fumes from the vehicles around you?

Now, imagine you have an extra half a trillion dollars to do something about all that crumbling infrastructure. It would be a game-changer, wouldn't it?

JEFF SPECK: Well, I think it's transformational in terms of the amount of jobs it will create and the impact it will have on the economy.

SCHAPER: Jeff Speck is an urban planner based in the Boston area and author of the book "Walkable City."

SPECK: It's not transformational in the way that it will cause us to live, to move around and to either reform or worsen climate change.

SCHAPER: Speck says the massive federal infrastructure bill passed by Congress last fall is not a huge shift in transportation priorities. Some provisions addressing climate change were stripped from it to help gain bipartisan support. And Speck says while the new funding for transportation infrastructure is substantial, the same old spending formulas will drive it.

SPECK: So much of the money that the federal government spends on infrastructure goes straight to states and to state departments of transportation, and then they spend it the way they want, which is notoriously almost entirely on expanding highways.

SCHAPER: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg disagrees. I sat down with him virtually as he starts to disperse the infrastructure funds, and I asked Buttigieg how important it is to quickly get the money flowing and shovels turning.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, it's important for it to be fast, but it's more important for it to be good. And so our primary focus is less shovel-ready projects - although there are many that we are excited about supporting - but it's really shovel-worthy projects. Some of the effects of this bill will be felt right away - formula dollars that will be flowing in very short order to state highway departments, for example.

But remember, this is not just a stimulus bill that's about getting through the next quarter. This is about building a transportation system that's going to serve Americans well for the rest of our lifetimes.

SCHAPER: Buttigieg insists that this infrastructure law will be targeted differently with greater investments in electric vehicles and charging stations, in resiliency, in transit, in bike lanes and in trying to get more people out of their cars. But what about the criticism that the vast majority of it still goes into the same old formulas that overwhelmingly favor roads and highways and will contribute to climate change?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, look, the answer is not always to have bigger, wider roads. Sometimes, when you do that, you just get more cars and more congestion. But it really depends where you are. Sometimes, the roads legitimately need to be expanded.

This is the United States of America. We will be relying on cars for as long as we live in some way, shape or form. But that doesn't mean it always has to look like the '50s. We can have more alternatives - better public transit, better active transportation. And when you are in a car, we can make sure that it's cleaner. All that together is a big part of the climate solution.

SCHAPER: Secretary Buttigieg highlights other priorities like regional equity in distributing competitive and discretionary grants so that they don't favor big, wealthier cities and regions over smaller, poorer ones, and racial equity and transportation access.

BUTTIGIEG: Making sure that transportation dollars go out fairly in a way that gives people opportunity. Unfortunately, that's not always been true in the past. We have a chance to do something about that. And that's something that we will certainly be weighing and considering - what communities, cities, towns, counties, states are coming to us asking us to help fund their transportation vision.

SCHAPER: There's an old joke in many parts of the country that there are just two seasons - winter and construction. Buttigieg has his work cut out for him as he approaches the latter and addresses the country's huge demand to fix and replace aging roads, rails, bridges and ports, while also pivoting to address broader climate and racial equity goals.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUTURE ISLANDS SONG, "BEACH FOAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.