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The Avenue

Don’t dismiss Obama’s clean transportation plan

Robert Puentes and Joseph Kane

President Obama recently unveiled an ambitious new plan to pump $32 billion more annually into sustainable 21st century transportation infrastructure. With a dual focus on jumpstarting economic investment and reducing carbon pollution, the plan aims to drive innovations in public transit, intercity rail, and electric vehicle technology, and other clean fuel alternatives. In short, the kind of sustainable investments that are gaining momentum at the local, regional, and international level.

Not surprisingly, immediate reactions to the plan have been dismissive. Funded through a new $10-per-barrel oil tax phased in over five years, many members of Congress are already pronouncing the measure dead-on-arrival, while oil companies are apoplectic about its implementation.

But here’s why it’s important:

This past December, Congress passed a long-term surface transportation bill—the FAST Act—for the first time in years, but it does little to move beyond the country’s interstate highway era, marks slow progress on a variety of alternative infrastructure investments, and largely overlooks the nation’s climate concerns. However, the president’s new proposal puts transportation squarely at the forefront of the country’s key environmental goals, as it should be given its enormous contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, the FAST Act fails to raise additional revenues to pay for transportation, relying instead on a series of budgetary gimmicks and the same federal gasoline tax that has remained unchanged and undercut by inflation for the past two decades. While the president’s idea to tax oil is a contentious move given its likely impact on consumers at the pump—where we could pay as much as 25 cents more per gallon—prices today are as low as they’ve been in a long time. Plus, many of the plan’s investments aim to encourage transportation alternatives, which is kind of the point since cheaper gas encourages more driving.

Beyond addressing the FAST Act’s shortcomings, Obama’s new plan also seeks to create a more robust market for cleaner vehicles. Alongside obvious air quality and carbon-reduction benefits, the plan embraces the country’s advanced research capacity and entrepreneurial dynamism to deploy more electric vehicles. Given the insufficient number of charging stations nationally (and mostly concentrated in California), many regions need to launch more widespread investments.

Finally, the proposal recognizes that top-down federal mandates are not the best, or only,  way to tackle carbon reduction in the transportation sector. Increasingly, cities, states, and metropolitan areas have to be empowered and incentivized to act, and that progress has to be measured. Through a new “Climate Smart Fund” and other competitive grant programs, regions can accelerate more integrated and resilient investments, while continuing to devise their own visions for creating a cleaner future across transportation, housing, land use, economic development and energy policies.

Despite the plan’s solid attempt to invest in a cleaner, more efficient transportation network, a lack of foresight in Congress means a steep uphill battle, which is a shame. It’s time the nation adopts a more forward-looking approach to its infrastructure challenges rather continuing to accept the status-quo.

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