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What’s In (And What’s Out Of) the New Reconciliation Bill For Sustainable Transport

12:01 AM EDT on November 2, 2021

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has been driving many of the cuts in the Build Back Better Act. Image: Third Way

Most programs favored by sustainable transportation advocates have survived negotiations over the massive social infrastructure package that's held up the country's transportation ambitions for months — though a few of them have gotten a little skinnier.

Late last week, the House Rules Committee released the revised text of the Build Back Better Act, which was slashed from $3.5 trillion to just $1.75 trillion during negotiations with Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who both objected to the scale of the bill and have so far blocked their Democratic colleagues from passing it through reconciliation.

The transportation title of the legislation suffered fewer losses than others, losing $17 billion of the $57 billion originally devoted to keeping Americans moving. But among sustainable transport advocates, some of those losses were more painful than others:

BBA Comparison

First, the good news

Among the sectors that survived the slashing with no or only minimal funding reductions was transit. A program focused on boosting high speed rail expansion retained the full $10 billion promised in the last version of the bill, while the now-$9.75 billion Affordable Housing Access program, which most advocates expect to primarily benefit transit agencies, lost only a small fraction of its initial funding of $9.9 billion.

The popular Neighborhood Access and Equity grant program also held onto the $3.95 billion promised to it in the act's first draft, helping to correct for the slashing inflicted on a similar program which would also reconnect and otherwise reparate communities torn apart by federally-backed highways. The Community Climate Incentives program, which for the first time would require states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide grants to those who comply, also survived the axing.

Advocates were particularly heartened to see that legislators had responded to outcry over cuts to the proposed federal E-BIKE credit, which only provided a refundable tax credit of 15 percent of the purchase price of a new electric bicycle and imposed a raft of restrictions on buyers. Most of those restrictions remained in place, but the credit has been doubled to 30 percent, and the federal bike commuter benefit has also remained intact.

But not every program made it through the legislative sausage grinder.

The bad (or at least ambiguous) news

Among the biggest (and most ambiguous) losses was the mysterious $6 billion "local transportation priorities" line item, which was widely assumed to refer to the earmarks outlined in the House's initial attempt at a transportation reauthorization bill. If so, a slate of larger active transportation projects may have just lost their funding, including $14.7 million to build out the Massachusetts rail trail system and $13.2 million for greenways in the greater Baltimore region — but so did roughly 1,400 highway expansions and bridge projects that would primarily benefit drivers.

Also axed was a $100 million program specifically for tribal transportation, which some advocates hoped would help end horrifying disparities in pedestrian death rates in indigenous communities compared to the U.S. population at large, but theoretically could have also supported projects that would make reservations more car-dependent.

Another controversial program that vanished was the Automated Vehicles Clearinghouse, which would have devoted a modest $8 million to conduct and support research on the impacts of so-called driverless cars. Some advocates initially praised the program for its focus on assessing both the positive and negative externalities of the nascent technology, while others feared it would become yet another form of subsidy for an industry that's dominated by some of the wealthiest people on the planet.

A national clearinghouse to further research into "fair and equitable traffic safety enforcement programs” also had its funding halved, though the legislation was not specific at this stage on what those terms will mean in practice.

Of course, none of these programs may make their way into law if Democrats (particularly Manchin) can't reach an agreement on the finer points of the bill — and Republicans, all of whom have vowed not to vote against the Build Back Act, aren't going to lend a helping hand. If a deal can't be reached, progressives have vowed to withhold their votes on a companion bill to reauthorize the DOT's core transportation programs, which could force Congress to pass yet another extension of the deeply flawed FAST Act and throw into question the future of the slightly better Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Still, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg expressed tentative optimism about the prospects of a vote this week, telling Fox News "we’re the closest that we’ve ever been, and it looks like we’re teed up for major action soon."

If he's right, communities across America may soon find out what life after infrastructure week actually looks like.

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