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Congress keeps focus on the car

America’s love affair with the car won’t be disrupted by recent high-profile infrastructure and climate bills. 

Driving-related programs like electrifying cars and improving roads receive 66% of transportation-related funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, according to a Nov. 1 Brookings Metro analysis.

Outside of driving-related programs, however, the bills offer sufficient investment to revamp the country’s national transportation agenda — if local and state officials take advantage of the moment, Brookings said.

“Clearly the response of federal leadership so far to transportation having the highest emissions of any sector is to clean up the driving, not to reduce or eliminate driving,” said Brookings Metro senior fellow Adie Tomer.

Brookings Metro

“Congress is clearly a long-time supporter of drivers, and that didn’t change,” said Brookings Metro Senior Fellow Adie Tomer, who wrote the Nov. 1 report.

“What the numbers underscore is that clearly the response of federal leadership so far to transportation having the highest emissions of any sector is to clean up the driving, not to reduce or eliminate driving.”

The report comes as the IIJA nears its one-year anniversary this month and federal transportation officials continue to push funding from competitive grants and formula programs out the door. The separate Inflation Reduction Act, enacted in August, provides billions for climate-related efforts and to reduce emissions in particular from transportation, which is the largest domestic contributor to climate change in the U.S.

The laws send billions to state and local governments, who will be responsible for building the infrastructure, ranging from a national electric charging station network to expanded highways, additional bike lanes and improved local transit systems.  

Taken together, the bills send more than $400 billion to road- and driver-related programs, according to the report, which dubbed the American driver the “big winner” of the transportation-related spending.

Brookings also found that infrastructure construction is by far the largest transportation category, with a total of nearly $500 billion. Of that, 61% is for driver-related programs. The full 100% of the second-largest category, batteries and charging, goes to driver-related purposes, as does 99% of the fuels and technology category.  

Unlike the U.S., other developed countries are advocating policies, like improved transit, that encourage people to “get out of their cars,” Tomer said. “In America, the big federal push is not really there right now.”

The IIJA’s increased flexibility in the use of formula dollars could prompt states to shift away from a traditional car focus, Tomer noted.

States like “California, Massachusetts, or Washington that have been looking to do different things now have more latitude to experiment with formula dollars,” he said. “That leads to an urgency to track where all the dollars go.”

Meanwhile, local officials can find plenty of federal aid for non-car related programs that carry the potential to reshape local transportation landscapes, Brookings said.

The legislation features 18 new programs totaling $27 billion for things like redesigning streets and building more pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure.

Despite headwinds like inflation, rising interest rates and a tight labor force, America is in a mood to invest in itself, Tomer said.

“It’s now incumbent on state and local officials to deliver superior results from those policy experiments in order to push Congress to enact the first grand reimagining of federal transportation policy in generations,” he wrote in the report.

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