GOP Govs to Biden: Don’t Force Your Progressive Politics on our Highway Projects

Republicans push back on Democrats' demands to use the infrastructure bill to promote social equity and mitigate climate change.

GOP governors don't want any curtailment of highway widening. Above, a highway in Pittsburgh. Photo: File
GOP governors don't want any curtailment of highway widening. Above, a highway in Pittsburgh. Photo: File

A group of Republican governors banded together this week to resist the federal government’s push to use the new $1.2-trillion infrastructure package to promote progress on climate change, jobs and racial justice.

The 16 state chief executives wrote to President Biden on Wednesday demanding that the administration “not burden states or private sector partners with needless and unnecessary red tape,” in the distribution of funds for projects under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

But it wasn’t really red tape that the governors took aim at — it was tape that was green or rainbow-hued. The letter specifically cites objections to the federal effort to only fund projects that seek to mitigate global warming or rectify racist land-use policies.

“Excessive consideration of equity, union memberships or climate as lenses to view suitable projects would be counterproductive,” the governors wrote. “Your administration should not attempt to push a social agenda through hard infrastructure investments and instead should consider economically sound principles that align with state priorities.”

Exhibit A for what the governors called “a clear example of federal overreach” would be “an attempt by the Federal Highway Administration to limit state widening projects,” which, the governors wrote, “would be biased against rural states and states with growing populations.” The governors argued that highway expansions “drive economic growth” — but many studies indicate that wider highways lead only to sprawl, pollution and, through the phenomenon of “induced demand,” more time- and productivity-killing congestion.

The infrastructure bill, which passed last November with bi-partisan support, was supposed to usher in a new era of cooperation in Washington around the shared national goals of fixing roads, bridges and transit. It only has led to more division, however, as Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which envisions even more sweeping climate-change and jobs measures, remains stalled.

The governors were reacting to a Jan. 4 letter that Biden’s infrastructure implementation coordinator, Mitch Landrieu, sent to governors urging them to be “good stewards” of the federal money by “working to achieve goals around creating good middle-class jobs, supporting disadvantaged and underserved communities, advancing climate resilience and sustainability, and investing in American manufacturers.” Landrieu said that regulations governing the expenditures would enshrine those priorities.

Removing highways that had the racist intent of dividing and impoverishing Black communities has been a focus of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who recently decried how “Black and brown neighborhoods … were divided by highway projects plowing through them because they didn’t have the political capital to resist.”

Such stands have brought him opprobrium from the right, with Fox News pillorying him for those views. Meanwhile, Republican infrastructure proposals arguably would make climate change worse: They go all-in on cars, raising the funding for roads and bridges, cutting funding for public transportation and intercity rail, and opposing zoning reform, all of which are essential for decarbonizing the transportation sector.

Advocates, for their part, are mobilizing to make sure that the federal dollars go to the right projects, with Transportation for America, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, America Walks, and the League of American Bicyclists joining for an online forum on Jan. 26.

“States have the ability to improve safety, equity, public health and economic outcomes in transportation but the discretion not to — a framework the administration agreed to in the infrastructure deal,” said Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America. “At this point, the administration will need to use the bully pulpit and take quick action through rules, guidance and leveraging competitive programs to push state leaders that are uninterested in these priorities — like these — to get interested.”

The Republican governors who signed the letter were Bill Lee of Tennessee, Kay Ivey of Alabama, Mike Dunleavy of Alaska, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Eric Holcomb of Indiana, Mike Parson of Missouri, Greg Gianforte of Montana, Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, Henry McMaster of South Carolina, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Spencer Cox of Utah, and Mark Gordon of Wyoming.

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