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Biden Wants to Spend Billions to Fight Climate Change. It’s Not Enough.

Among the bright spots: The plan calls for $115 billion in spending on roads and bridges, but unlike many previous highway-funding proposals, Biden’s plan emphasizes repairing roads before expanding them or building new ones. This is crucial because one of every five miles of roadway in America is rated in poor condition — but when given federal money for roads, states often spend a lot of it on expansion rather than repair.

This is counterproductive. New roads are often justified as a way to reduce traffic, but that’s not how traffic works — new and expanded roads tend to encourage more driving, just making congestion worse. New roads also make for more maintenance, adding to the backlog of repairs.

Another novelty in a federal highway bill is the proposal’s emphasis on road safety. It includes $20 billion to reduce crashes and fatalities “especially for cyclists and pedestrians,” constituencies that are often forgotten about in spending for cars. The plan also outlines many ideas to address racial equity, including a $20 billion program to redress the practice of building highways through Black neighborhoods.

But at the moment, Biden’s big ideas exist mainly as a fact sheet — there is no written bill yet, and in the sausage-making of transportation legislation, ambitious ideas are often left behind.

“Whether what they write at every step matches their rhetoric, that is the real question,” said Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America, an advocacy group. Osborne served as the deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy in the Obama administration, and she notes that Obama too called for repairing roads before expanding them. But she regrets that Obama’s progressive rhetoric on transportation policy did not translate to progressive legislation.

“Congress and the administration have been left off the hook — but no one ever called them on it, and no one ever does,” she told me. “I’m hoping this time they do.”

I am too. I plan to watch the process closely and I promise to throw a columnistic tantrum if the promises aren’t met. But it will likely take many months for a version of the package to wend its way through Congress, and public interest is likely to die down through the long slog. Given the mismatch between the scale of the crisis and the political will to do something big, I can’t say I’m very hopeful.

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