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A new ranking looks at how well states are directing money from the infrastructure law to improve equity and climate outcomes in their transportation networks.
The billions of dollars in federal transportation money allocated under the bipartisan infrastructure law are doing a lot more to address climate change and rectify racial inequities in California than in Kentucky, with the other 48 states falling in between, according to a new analysis by an environmental group.
The Natural Resources Defense Council ranked California first for ensuring that the money it has received under the 2021 law would advance those goals in the transportation sector. Kentucky came in 50th. The NRDC’s researchers based their rankings on 19 separate factors, including the greenhouse gas impact of road projects, the deployment of electric vehicle chargers, efforts to encourage residents to avoid car trips, and procurement policies that promote women- and minority-owned businesses.
“We’re really just shining a light on the role that states have,” said John Bailey, an NRDC advocate and one of the primary authors of the report. “A lot of what you read is the amount of money that is being spent, and that’s seen as a good thing in and of itself. But we would argue that what's more important than the amount of money is literally what is being built on the ground and who that is serving.”
The rankings come two years after President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provided a major influx of new transportation money to state governments. The Biden administration has promoted the use of those funds to address environmental and equity concerns, but most of the decisions about how the money is spent are still up to state officials.
Bailey said the group wanted to make sure that equity considerations were “embedded” in the environmental criteria. “If we’re ignoring equity in pursuit of our climate goals, we’re not going to meet either,” he said.
California stood out on nearly every measure the NRDC looked at. For some categories, that’s no surprise. After all, other states were judged on whether they adopted California’s standards for limiting tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks. The federal Clean Air Act allows other states to choose between California’s more stringent rules or the federal rules. At the time of the analysis, 16 states had adopted California’s pollution standards for cars and seven signed onto its rules for trucks.
But California led in other measures, too. It used the highest share of its federal “highway” funding—10%—for bicycle and pedestrian projects. It was tops for the number of both fast and slower, Level 2, electric vehicle chargers per resident. California was one of 19 states to lay out specific greenhouse gas reduction targets for the transportation sector, which is now the biggest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the U.S. economy. It was one of 10 states that compensates community members for participating in the planning process for transportation projects.
California fell behind most of the country for bicyclist and pedestrian safety (based on a five-year average of injuries and fatalities per capita). It also lagged many of its counterparts in state funding for transit, and California did not reach its goal for contracts awarded to disadvantaged business enterprises, or DBE.
Massachusetts was a distant second to California on the NRDC rankings. Other traditionally liberal states fared well, too. Vermont, Oregon, Washington, New York, Colorado, New Jersey, Connecticut and Minnesota rounded out the top 10.
On the other hand, Kentucky failed to meet the NRDC’s criteria in 14 out of 19 categories. It earned no points for promoting smart growth or using federal tax credits to encourage the construction of affordable housing near transit.
The Bluegrass State did, however, have lower rates of bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities than California. And it met its DBE procurement goal, which California did not.
Louisiana and Nebraska fared slightly better, tying for second worst on the NRDC scorecard. The low showing for Louisiana is especially striking because of the state’s role in promoting diversity in the transportation industry nationally. Shawn Wilson, the state’s former secretary of transportation and development, became the first Black president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials two years ago. From that post, he pushed his colleagues to increase diversity and outreach in their work. Wilson left his state post earlier this year, though, to pursue a run for governor that he ultimately lost.
In the NRDC rankings, Alabama, South Carolina, Arizona, Idaho, Alaska, Montana and Mississippi filled out the bottom 10 spots.
Of the criteria that the environmental group looked at, the one factor that a majority of states failed to achieve was setting a carbon intensity ceiling for construction materials like concrete or steel. Only California, Colorado, New Jersey and New York met that criteria, which NRDC described as a “relatively nascent area of procurement policy.”
Other states have tried to tackle the same problem with different approaches, but their policies weren't as stringent as the four states, the group explained in its report. “Many states have made decisions about using particular types of materials—such as warm-mix asphalt, Portland limestone cement, and materials with recycled or reclaimed content—and Hawaii has decided to use carbon-injected concrete,” it noted.
Likewise, only five states met the NRDC’s procurement standards for requiring environmental product declarations that can help buyers identify the carbon impact of these construction materials.
Bailey from the NRDC said some of the actions recommended by the scorecard could one day be required by the federal government. For example, the Federal Highway Administration last year proposed that state transportation departments and metropolitan planning organizations set nonbinding targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles on their highways. State officials sharply disagreed with each other on the new reporting requirements, which have been under consideration for more than a year.
Bailey said he hoped the measure would take effect soon. “But in the meantime, we can’t wait,” he said. “We can’t wait for Congress to change the rules. States have the power to do a lot of this right now. Many states are taking the lead on this, and we have to champion those states.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
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