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America has long preferred cars to trains and buses. Can Biden change this?

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If America is dominated by auto culture and the appeal of the open road, there’s a big reason for this: Over the past 65 years, the United States has spent nearly $ 10 trillion in public funds. for highways and roads, and only a quarter of that for subways, buses and passenger trains.

But President Biden’s $ 2 trillion infrastructure plan, unveiled this week, represents one of the most ambitious efforts to date to challenge the centrality of the automobile to American life, proposing to tilt the Federal spending much more towards public transportation and getting more people out of their cars. . Experts say transformation is needed to tackle climate change, but it could prove extremely difficult in practice.

As part of his plan, Biden wants to spend $ 85 billion over eight years to help cities modernize and expand their transit systems, effectively doubling federal spending on transit every year. There is also $ 80 billion to modernize and expand intercity rail networks such as Amtrak. It would be one of the biggest investments in passenger trains in decades.

And, while Mr. Biden’s plan offers $ 115 billion for roads, the focus would be on repairing aging highways and bridges, rather than expanding the road network. That, too, is a shift in priorities: in recent years, states have spent about half of their freeway money building new roads or widening existing ones, which studies find often simply encourage more driving and does little to reduce congestion.

“There is no doubt that the share of funding going to transit and rail in Biden’s proposal is much larger than in any similar legislation that we have seen in our lifetime,” said Yonah Freemark, research associate. senior at the Urban Institute. “It’s a radical change.”

When Congress writes new multi-billion dollar transportation bills every few years, about four-fifths of the money typically goes to highways and roads, a trend that has continued since the early 1980s. this disparity makes sense. After all, about 80% of trips Americans make are by car or light truck, compared to just 3% by public transit.

But some experts say this is pushing back the causation: decades of government investment in roads and highways – starting with the creation of the interstate highway system in 1956 – have turned most cities and suburbs into desolate areas. sprawling, car-centric environments where it can be dangerous to walk or cycle. On top of that, other reliable public transportation options are scarce.

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“We force almost everyone to drive,” said Catherine Ross, transportation planning expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “The choices that individuals make are deeply shaped by the infrastructure we have built.”

Transportation now accounts for one-third of America’s global warming greenhouse gas emissions, the bulk of which comes from hundreds of millions of gasoline-powered cars and SUVs, while Mr Biden is proposing $ 174 billion for promote cleaner electric vehicles, experts said. that helping Americans drive less will be critical to meeting the administration’s climate goals.

“Far too many Americans do not have access to affordable public transportation, and those who do have access to it often face delays and disruptions,” Mr. Biden said wednesday. “We have the power to change that.”

But Mr. Biden, a longtime Amtrak pilot and promoter, will face hurdles in trying to make the United States more train and bus-friendly.

His plan has yet to go through Congress, where lawmakers in rural and suburban districts often prefer money for roads. Across the country, new transit projects have suffered from soaring costs. The coronavirus pandemic has also led many Americans to avoid subways and buses in favor of private vehicles, and it is still unclear when and if transit ridership will rebound.

The Biden administration may also have a limited ability to influence the actions of state and local governments, which still account for the vast majority of transportation spending. Many important planning decisions – such as building dense housing near light rail stations – are made locally and can determine whether transit systems thrive or struggle.

“States are the emperors of transportation,” said Beth Osborne, director of transportation for America, a transit advocacy group. “But a lot of the culture of our current program is based on what came out of the Department of Transportation, so it’s an important statement if the Biden administration says it’s time to pivot.”

Yet some transportation agencies say a large infusion of federal funds could be transformative. Many transit systems are over half a century old and struggling to secure sufficient funding to meet their growing backlog of needed repairs. This usually leaves little money to consider major new expansions.

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In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority needs federal help to move forward with a $ 2 billion plan to expand rail service to King of Prussia, a fast-growing employment center, as well as a $ 1.8 billion plan to modernize the city’s aging trolleys, said Andrew Busch, a spokesperson for the agency.

In the Bay Area, federal funding would be needed to expand the Bay Area Rapid Transit light rail system to San Jose and create a regional network of carpooling lanes, said Randy Rentschler, director of legislation and business public at the Metropolitan Transportation of the region. Commission.

Mr. Biden also proposed spending $ 80 billion to modernize and expand intercity rail service such as Amtrak. Right now, Amtrak’s busiest route is the Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC and Boston, which Amtrak says needs $ 38 billion for upgrades and repairs.

Other cities have infrequent and often inconvenient connections. For example, to travel from Cincinnati to Chicago by train, there is only one train per day. The trip lasts nine hours and the train leaves at 1:41 a.m.

Amtrak has suggested that with $ 25 billion, it could significantly expand its network by 2035, adding 30 routes to cities currently not served by intercity rail, like Las Vegas and Nashville, and improving service along 20 routes to cities like Houston and Cincinnati. Amtrak said annual ridership would drop from 32 million today to 52 million, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by replacing car and plane travel.

Yet attempts to expand America’s transit and rail systems can run into pitfalls.

Building infrastructure in the United States has become notoriously expensive and difficult compared to other countries. In California, a plan for the high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco that received federal funding from the Obama administration has been plagued with repeated delays and cost overruns, and it remains unclear whether even a partial segment will be completed by 2030. The Biden proposal mentions this cost issue, but remains vague on how to resolve it.

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Another challenge will be to ensure that funding goes to the most effective projects. “When it rains a lot of money from the summit, states and communities will do whatever they can to get that money,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at Eno Center for Transportation, a non-partisan research center in Washington. . “Sometimes that money can go to projects that are not the best.”

Mr. Lewis noted that improving the country’s transportation system is not always about laying new cement and steel. Often the most effective changes can be operational, such as forcing people to drive more during rush hour to reduce congestion, lowering speed limits to improve road safety, or increasing the frequency of bus routes to make them longer. useful to passengers.

Some experts have also questioned whether the Biden administration would try to curb local governments’ preference for large highway expansion projects that critics say continue to reinforce the country’s dependence on automobiles.

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The administration has signaled a more skeptical stance on highways. On Thursday, the Federal Highway Administration made the unusual move to suspend the planned expansion of Interstate 45 near Houston, amid concerns about rising air pollution and the displacement of black and Hispanic communities. Separately, the Biden administration’s infrastructure proposal includes $ 20 billion to improve road safety, including for pedestrians, as well as an additional $ 20 billion to “reconnect neighborhoods” that have been damaged by old ones. road projects.

But it remains to be seen how these programs will work. For example, without strict conditions on the part of the federal government, some states could simply take federal funds for highway repairs and safety, and then use their own funds for highway expansion.

“If this money is not accompanied by real policy changes,” said Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, “then states will continue to do what they always have done, this which is neither fair nor green. . “

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