May 18, 2022

Botu Linum

The Car & Automotive Devotees

If Only There Were an Infrastructure Bill to Deal With This Oil Crisis

6 min read

Have you heard? Oil and gas prices are sky-high, a trend that shows no signs of abating. Russia has now joined Venezuela and Iran as another major oil producer on the outs with the United States and Europe, and the dwindling global supply can’t keep up with demand. Even with the Biden administration tapping the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and even with our alleged “energy independence,” $4-a-gallon gas and oil prices in the triple digits per barrel (where they nearly were before the Ukraine invasion) are likely here to stay, an oil crisis that many would say was entirely predictable.

With little other recourse—Wall Street will not allow American shale drillers to open up the floodgates for fear of disrupting profits; Saudi Arabia isn’t taking Joe Biden’s calls—the most obvious remaining solution is to figure out a way, both immediately and over the long term, to curb the addiction to oil. In the United States, transportation accounts for over 70 percent of total oil consumption, and more than 65 percent of that is for personal vehicles, according to the Energy Information Administration. Put another way, personal vehicles alone account for almost half of the burning of petroleum in America. A whopping 80 percent of U.S. climate emissions from transportation come from driving.

So the oil crisis is a transportation crisis, and more specifically a driving crisis. Never has it been more urgent that cities enact aggressive plans to diminish their reliance on car travel, and shrink the number of miles traveled in gasoline-powered vehicles. That means rapid expansion of public transportation, including bus, light rail, and subway. It means similarly massive expansion of bike lanes and prioritization and protection of pedestrian travel. It means getting rid of parking requirements for urban housing developments. All of these plans that appear in various 10- and 30-year timelines need to be accelerated and compressed into shorter time windows.

Americans’ driving habits, of course, are controlled in many ways by federal spending on infrastructure, which creates and maintains the roads and highways where Americans ravenously consume that oil. And Democrats and a handful of Republicans just a few months ago passed an infrastructure bill that the White House has since been trying to spin as a historic piece of legislation.

If it were indeed that, the timing could not be better. The need for an overhauled transportation sector has now revealed itself not only as a climate exigency but an economic and national-security priority. The crisis couldn’t be more immediate.

But that’s not what the bipartisan infrastructure bill did, really. Not even five months since its passage, the bill has already shown itself to be perilously outmoded and wrongheaded for the world we live in.

More from Alexander Sammon

Marketed as a $1.2 trillion bill, the infrastructure bill only ever contained $550 billion in new, one-time spending into a range of infrastructure initiatives. Its biggest topline commitment was the $110 billion in new spending for highways, roads, and bridges, compared with just $39 billion in new spending on public transit, only a slight improvement on the 80/20 split that has been in place since the 1980s, with almost four dollars allocated to highways for every one dollar allocated for public transit. If you add up the existing road funding in the bill, you get to around $200 billion. The White House has insisted that the $39 billion for transit is historic, but it’s also dwarfed by a historic investment in fossil fuel–intensive highway expansion.

Of course, that highway expansion doesn’t have to be fossil fuel–intensive, if we quickly transform the vehicle fleet into an electric one. But the total sum for transportation electrification in the bill is $7.5 billion for electric-vehicle charging stations, which won’t be nearly enough to meet the necessary scale of expansion. The incentives for electric-vehicle purchases are all stranded in the failed Build Back Better Act.

Meanwhile, the final draft of the BIF did not require states to repair existing infrastructure before creating additional traffic capacity by building new lanes, interchanges, and the like, all but ensuring that that money will go into expansion. Even if that stipulation had been put in place, repair projects often result in changes that simply increase road capacity as well. Research has shown that widening roads does nothing for fixing congestion, but does succeed in increasing cars on the road.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that the country’s public-transit systems are currently in need of $176 billion just for deferred maintenance and backlogged repairs, and would need another $100 billion to maintain those operations through the end of the decade. Even if the highway funding and the transit funding had been reversed, the money would have been inadequate.

Of course, public transit finds itself in its own crisis, which makes the snarl even more complicated. Ridership is down, as people continue to work from home, which has diminished the amount of money those systems take in in fares, and led services to be curtailed. But that cycle could be broken with a big infusion of cash and a commitment to improve service and cut costs for riders, especially when the alternative is paying twice as much for every car trip.

Alas, as the National Association of City Transportation Officials said in a statement last year, the “bill goes in the wrong direction, giving a whopping $200 billion in virtually unrestricted funding” to unsustainable forms of transportation. There’s another $25 billion kicked in for airport maintenance, which is arguably even worse, given the fuel consumption associated with the country’s airline fleet. The federal Transportation Alternatives Program increased from $850 million to $1.38 billion. That’s good for a 60 percent increase, but it’s a microscopic investment in exceedingly important bike and pedestrian travel.

You can imagine a path where clean and sustainable transportation was catalyzed by federal funding from the infrastructure bill. It could have paid cities to be aggressive, to close streets to all but pedestrians, to make transit free, and where there isn’t transit, buy everyone an e-bike.

Given the rapid rise in traffic deaths in the last year-plus, it would have the added benefit of saving lives. It would even help with climate change, a concern that seems to have fallen off the map as politicians clamor for more drilling, as though investing in new drilling would have a faster impact than investing in capacity for bike lanes and transit.

An infrastructure bill with any foresight would have provisioned for this. The infrastructure bill that Democrats signed into law is anything but. Now we have an oil crisis and the top legislative accomplishment of the Biden administration is the infusion of extra money into fossil fuel infrastructure.

But there are still opportunities for Biden to make an impact, even with his Democratic Congress proving to be useless. He can publicly call on the mayors of all major American cities—all of whom, it must be said, are Democrats—to accelerate their transit development, bike, and pedestrian programs dramatically, if necessary using the bounty of funding in the American Rescue Plan to do it. He can lean on Eric Adams to spend less time pontificating about the rare gems and stones under New York and more time expediting the MTA’s busway program. Rather than calling on Joe Manchin, he can call on Lori Lightfoot and Michelle Wu.

Congressional Democrats botched their opportunity to start the transportation transition. The bipartisan infrastructure package has only made the challenge more difficult. But municipalities could still make it right.

This article is part of our ongoing series on sustainable mobility, transportation, and climate.