News Article

Communities need alternatives to driving
Infrastructure includes bike paths, sidewalks
November 19, 2019


By: Sen. Ben Cardin

Investing in infrastructure has been a priority for Democrats, Republicans and Independents. We all agree we need to get it done sooner rather than later when the need will be more urgent and the remedies more expensive.

As Congress looks to define how best to invest in our nation’s infrastructure, we should start by acknowledging two undeniable realities: Investing in all types of infrastructure is critical for ensuring economic growth today and prosperity for generations of Americans in the future. Secondly, transportation is one of the leading contributors to the growing air pollution from vehicles and engines and runoff from roads, highways and bridges to surface water that present formidable threats to our health, well-being and security. Taken together, these realities highlight the need for smart transportation and infrastructure policies that are informed by data and science, work to reduce our carbon emissions, and help communities adapt to and thrive in a world of human-driven climate change.

Whether we call it extreme weather or climate change, the impacts have already arrived. Unfortunately, many of our current public works were not built with an eye towards the frequency or intensity of the natural hazards we are experiencing. In 2016 and 2018, floods in southwest Baltimore and Ellicott City claimed the lives of three Marylanders and caused damage to homes and businesses. Climate stressors like extreme heat and flash flooding can lead to buckling roads and overwhelmed stormwater systems.

As we plan for infrastructure improvement, it is imperative that we understand and prepare for future impacts to our system now in order to save time and money in the long run.

This summer, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously approved a bill that provides a five-year reauthorization of our surface transportation programs. This legislation is an important, bipartisan first step in ensuring the stability of these programs over the coming years. It also establishes a package of new policies to address climate change, including a grant program to fund the infrastructure needed to support electric vehicles.  

But to take on the challenge of reducing our emissions and making our systems more resilient to the impacts already felt, shifting drivers into electric vehicles is not enough.

Years ago, I was proud to co-author bipartisan legislation that established the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP). This popular program provides funding for state and local governments to expand and improve their infrastructure supporting bike paths, sidewalks and safe routes to school. This year, I am optimistic that we will make enhancements to the program, along with increases in the budget, in the upcoming transportation reauthorization bill. The perennial oversubscription to this program demonstrates the real hunger nationwide for alternatives to driving for access work, school and community amenities.

Opportunities to expand bike and pedestrian infrastructure are not exclusive to large metropolitan areas. In fact, the Transportation Alternatives Program is specifically designed to ensure that smaller municipal planning organizations, who might not be able to afford the expensive technical assistance it requires to apply for a grant, are able to participate.

There is much more work to be done, starting with the recognition that new highway capacity is not a magic formula to erase our congestion problem and boost our infrastructure needs. Communities of every size need meaningful alternatives to driving, not simply as luxury, nice-to-have community amenities, but as a more definitive response to endless hours stuck in traffic, to hours-long commutes for those among us who cannot afford a car or a home close to job opportunities, and to tens of thousands of lives lost to vehicle collisions on our roadways. This also is a public health issue — and not only because of pollution.

The number of people dying on our roadways each year remains alarmingly high — more than 36,000 in 2018. According to the latest numbers from the National Highway Traffic Administration, 2018 saw a small decrease in fatalities from the previous year, but the number of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths increased. This is unacceptable.

Nationwide, our cities and towns demand safe, walkable neighborhoods offering easier access to jobs and other resources. Recent research shows that entrepreneurship tends to thrive in these kinds of places as well, with new businesses less impressed by wider highways and more drawn to walkable, transit-served communities.

While we await action from the House and other Senate Committees to advance their titles of the surface transportation reauthorization bill, it would be helpful to have some input from the White House. They have been silent on the details of an infrastructure plan and have done everything possible to move in the opposite direction of the most recent scientific data, even as it relates to national security, economic competitiveness and public health.

The imperatives of addressing extreme weather and climate change, as well as economic growth and competitiveness, and improving our quality of life are all aligned in favor of smarter transportation policies that offer relief from the status quo of highway gridlock and escalating emissions, and I am committed to continue to work on these policies in the Senate.