The Wins and Losses in the 2021 Infrastructure Bill

Photo of the U.S. Capitol building

The big fight over infrastructure in Congress is over (for now) with passage of a $550 billion bill. The infrastructure bill includes money for highways, transit, broadband, water systems, and more. But, as you all know, that just means the work turns from one forum to another. At America Walks, we intend to work with you on affecting the decisions in those forums, whether federal regulatory agencies, state highway departments, or your local elected officials.

First, a quick recap. 

The fight was not just over how much money went into which pot — it was also about rules governing state discretion on how to spend the money. One’s priorities determine how one reacts to the bill. Reactions have, predictably, been mixed.

There is undeniably more money for transit, walking, and biking than ever before. There is even money for new trail programs. But the biggest single pot of transportation money was not for people. It’s for cars — specifically, highways. Congress rejected approaches that would have prioritized maintenance, safety, and climate over highway expansion in how states spent the huge sums of money heading their way. How states spend discretionary highway dollars will have a dramatic impact on whether this bill is ultimately viewed as a transportation success or failure.

What the infrastructure bill means in practice

While not the transformative policy overhaul we would have liked to see, the infrastructure bill does contain important new policy directions. For example, the National Highway Safety Administration is instructed to look at vehicle design to improve safety of those outside vehicles. The Federal Highway Administration is instructed to consider the needs of vulnerable street users in revising the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). And states with high numbers of pedestrian deaths are required to refocus their resources.

For more full summaries of these bills, and advocate reactions, you can read more here, here and here 

We can all take a deep breath, celebrate the wins, lament the losses and curse at the missed opportunities.  But let’s be clear – the infrastructure bill provides a roadmap (sorry for the pun) of the work ahead. For America Walks and the local advocates we love and support, the bill has laid out a plan.

Big picture: Our movement is gaining strength. There is more support than ever for investing in transit, removing highways, reforming vehicle design, changing racially biased enforcement, and prioritizing active transportation.  But we are not strong enough to truly change the paradigm of federal transportation spending. Collectively, we must continue the work of public education, and building public demand for more equitable and sustainable transportation policies.

Now’s the time to speak up

State and local advocates will need to make their voices heard. They must speak up in city councils and state legislatures on the types of transportation projects they want to see. That will make a difference as to whether the federal money flows to things like new highway interchanges, or truly inclusive projects, like building out our sidewalk networks.

President Biden and Secretary Buttigieg could not fully realize their vision in Congress. But we can press them to use their regulatory authority on MUTCD, on vehicle design, and on their upcoming Roadway Safety Plan. We can push them to truly prioritize those outside of vehicles, and help build more accessible and equitable places.  

If you want to be part of these efforts, please join us. Sign up for our newsletters, attend our webinars, and join our training programs.  The infrastructure bill is the scorecard, it’s not the whole game. The work continues in our communities everyday, with one person talking to another about the world we want to see, and building the movement that politicians must heed.

Our ideas are gaining in the broader community, we just have to keep at it.  We look forward to the work ahead with you.