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The infrastructure bill is big, but it won’t transform America’s focus on cars

The bill contains $110 billion in new spending for highways, roads, and bridges, compared to $39 billion on public transit — close to the usual ratio.

Motor vehicle traffic on I-76 highway in Philadelphia. The $1 trillion infrastructure law is a big achievement at a time of broken politics, but the spending may not be as transformative as President Joe Biden had hoped.
Motor vehicle traffic on I-76 highway in Philadelphia. The $1 trillion infrastructure law is a big achievement at a time of broken politics, but the spending may not be as transformative as President Joe Biden had hoped.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

As the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law wound through the congressional sausage grinder, President Joe Biden often promised that the infusion of spending on roads, bridges, transit, and other projects would be transformative.

When he signed the legislation Monday, Biden compared it to a pair of epochal infrastructure investments: the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century and the Interstate Highway System in the 20th.

“Your life is going to change for the better,” he said.

» READ MORE: Here's what the Philadelphia region got out of Biden’s infrastructure bill

While the massive law is a historic achievement in a time of toxic partisanship, some analysts, transit advocates, and environmentalists say it doesn’t go far enough in upending the fundamental emphasis on automobiles embedded in federal transportation policy.

It contains $110 billion in new spending for highways, roads, and bridges, compared with $39 billion in new spending on public transit — close to the usual ratio.

Biden’s initial spending targets were shaved to attract enough moderate Democrats and Republicans to get the bill through the Senate. The president had wanted $85 billion for transit, for instance.

The final product did not require states to repair existing infrastructure before creating additional traffic capacity by building new lanes, interchanges, and the like, a change the administration had pushed.

“Yes, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a big deal,” said Peter Norton, a history professor in the University of Virginia’s engineering department. “But the bill is not transformational, because most of it is more of the same.”

Still, there’s a big jump in spending and policy changes aimed at making streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians — goals Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg talked up when he was nominated for the job.

“Traditionally, states have spent formula federal transportation funds … on expanding highways, an unsustainable practice that locks in years of higher greenhouse gas emissions,” said Corinne Kisner, the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

» READ MORE: People in rural Pennsylvania are desperate for internet. Biden’s infrastructure bill could help.

To combat environmental harm and alleviate racial disparities, the Department of Transportation must “hold states to account” as it writes regulations and shapes criteria for the awarding of discretionary grants funded in the law, Kisner said.

“It seems nuts — you don’t reform the spending practices of state DOTs after you send them billions of dollars,” said Daniel Trubman, who works on transit issues with 5th Square, the Philadelphia-based urbanist advocacy group.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence PennDot is going to flex highway dollars to transit projects or even to repairs instead of building more car infrastructure,” he said, noting that repair projects often include tweaks that increase road capacity.

Voluminous research has shown that widening roads does not cure traffic congestion because of “induced demand,” an econometrics term that says, basically: If you build it, they will come.

And at any rate, after years of underfunding, there’s not enough money in the bill to come close to meeting the estimated need to repair either highways or transit. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the country’s public transit systems alone need at least $176 billion in work done immediately, and $100 billion in needed maintenance through the end of the decade.

The new law has the potential to dramatically improve infrastructure and road safety for people who get around cities by bicycling or walking, advocates of so-called active transportation say.

It includes 60% more for the federal Transportation Alternatives program, from a flat $850 million to $1.38 billion, and increasing every year over five years. Local governments compete for grants under the program to pay for bike lanes, sidewalk improvements, shared-use trails, and other projects that make walking and cycling easier and safer.

For the first time, the law will require vehicle safety standards to incorporate ratings of how well cars avoid collisions with these vulnerable road users, and standards for making hoods and bumpers less dangerous in crashes with bikers and walkers, said Caron Whitaker, deputy executive director of the League of American Bicyclists.

» READ MORE: Traffic deaths jumped 88% in Philly last year despite fewer cars on road

“We keep making cars safer and safer for the people inside them but are doing nothing to make them safer for the people outside them,” Whitaker said.

Another grant program will distribute $6 billion to state and local governments to implement complete streets policies that make road design take into account safety for users on foot or on bikes, she said.

“Would I have written it differently? Sure, but the bill is much better than the policies we have now and better than what we might get from the next Congress,” Whitaker said.

And the law will spend $1 billion on a reconnecting communities program to begin undoing the damage infrastructure visited on low-income and communities of color over the decades.

The money will be spread across the entire country, so capping the Vine Street Expressway that splits Philadelphia’s Chinatown or tearing down the Roosevelt Expressway viaduct looming over Nicetown is likely a long way off.

» READ MORE: Congressional plan would reconnect neighborhoods like Philly’s Chinatown, fractured by highways

It cost Rochester, N.Y., about $2 billion to convert an interstate into a grade-level boulevard and reconnect a historically Black neighborhood there, for instance.

“It’s a great start,” said Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.), who pushed for the program along with colleagues from the Congressional Black Caucus. “We’ll keep advocating.”

Biden wanted $20 billion for the initiative, but even though it’s much smaller, it’s a significant development that major federal legislation addresses inequities that have often been ignored for decades.

The Associated Press contributed information for this article.