The Biden administration might hope its $1.2 trillion infrastructure law will drastically refashion the country’s largely auto-centric transportation network, but state laws stand in the way of any major shifts in most of the country, according to a new analysis.
Twenty-seven states have laws on their books or in their constitutions that prevent fuel taxes from being used on anything other than roads and highways, explained Kevin DeGood, the director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, in the report.
That limits how those states can spend the extra money they’ll get from the infrastructure law because states use their fuel tax revenue to provide the matching funds that are required to unlock the federal transportation money.
Often, those strict rules were put in place to lock in a system where drivers benefitted from the gas and diesel taxes they paid. But DeGood said the restrictions can block states and localities from building or improving alternative modes of transportation, which can improve safety, limit health effects on nearby communities and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other pollution.
“State constitutional provisions, laws and rules that lock in highway spending can hamper progressive governors from implementing their vision for inclusive growth,” DeGood wrote.
“They can also effectively penalize metropolitan regions that try to advance progressive infrastructure programs focused on robust transit, active transportation—including biking and walking—and sustainable land use,” he added.
DeGood’s analysis focuses mostly on North Carolina, and a 2013 law Republicans passed to prioritize new transportation projects. DeGood said the rating mechanisms in the Strategic Transportation Investments law “channel[ed] roughly 94% of all transportation funds to highway projects with a heavy focus on construction and expansion—especially of larger highway facilities.”
That undermines an executive order that Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, issued earlier this year charging state agencies with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, DeGood argued. The ranking law also ran counter to the state transportation department’s 2021 strategic plan, which promised to make “multimodal” options more readily available for North Carolina residents, he wrote.
In an interview with Route Fifty, DeGood said the law came to his attention because it constrained the ambitions of the metropolitan planning organization in the Durham-Chapel Hill area.
The agency, whose job is to make long-term transportation plans for the region and pick projects that support it, sets goals of reducing greenhouse gas pollution and increasing mobility for residents.
But the Research Triangle, which includes the two cities, has developed in a way that runs counter to those goals. As more people moved in, the region has built more highways to connect new subdivisions and spread-out shopping areas. Despite state and local governments spending $2.8 billion on highways in the last 30 years, the time motorists in the area are caught in delays is five times higher now than before they were built.
So the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization decided to change course. It removed 19 highway projects from its priority list, which would have cost $500 million. (Officials from the MPO did not respond to a request for comment.)
The planning organization, though, can’t just use the money it saved on highway projects to build transit infrastructure or promote denser developments, DeGood explained. If that money doesn’t go to build highways in the Durham area, it will be spent on highway projects somewhere else in the state.
In fact, the state’s Strategic Transportation Investments law makes it hard for public transit, pedestrian or bicycle infrastructure to compete at all. Its biggest category for projects of statewide importance, for example, is open to rail, airport and highway projects. But transit projects are not eligible. The law also ranks projects on criteria that favor highways, like their ability to reduce congestion, moving freight and safety benefits to drivers.
“When you talk to people in North Carolina, they’ll tell you there was a long-standing belief that there was a political, back-slapping, smoke-filled room in Raleigh where [decisions] were made, and nobody understood why projects weren’t in and which ones got funded,” DeGood said.
“So what they were solving for in 2013 was transparency, and, in that respect, STI was successful,” he added. “But this is an approach to surface transportation that is straight out of 1956 [when the federal interstate system was created].”
Aaron Moody, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said the agency does not respond to “outside reports or opinion pieces,” referring to the Center for American Progress’ study.
Moody said the department works with local officials to identify priorities for their areas. The law requires the agency to work with regional partners to “continually look for ways to improve the methodology and criteria required by the law for scoring highway and non-highway projects,” Moody wrote in an email message.
DeGood said the state could improve the outcomes of the projects it builds by scoring projects’ ability to improve other metrics that are not currently considered. For example, he said, the agency could account for reductions in greenhouse gases, investments in historically disadvantaged areas, decreases in vehicle miles traveled, better connectivity to street grids, efficiency of people moved in a given area, safety improvements (especially among non-motorists) and improving the condition of current assets.
Paying attention to those granular details will determine whether Biden’s law lives up to the promises the president and his administration have made, DeGood said.
“The lesson is, we need Washington to assert these national inclusive growth and sustainability goals,” he said. “But then the fight also has to be taken to the state level, because that’s where so much of the project selection and implementation actually happen.”
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