Hillside ride next to a meadow
Highway through the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. © Kent Mason

Policy

Investing in America's Transportation Infrastructure

Leveraging natural infrastructure and addressing climate change

Nature is an important part of the solution to improving transportation infrastructure while protecting and enhancing lands and waters and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

NATURAL INFRASTRUCTURE

Nature-based solutions can increase the resilience of transportation infrastructure while providing economic, environmental and social benefits to communities. Benefits include reducing risks from floods, droughts and fires. Natural infrastructure incorporates both the natural environment and engineered systems that mimic or work with natural systems and processes. It can be used alone or alongside gray infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, culverts, tide gates and levees, to provide cost-effective and sustainable solutions.

Congress must ensure that resilient transportation is built to endure a changing climate and increasingly frequent extreme weather and wildfire events. To improve planning, training and direct investments in nature-based and gray infrastructure, Congress should take the following actions:

  • Require resilience and flood and wildfire risk analysis in federally funded work.
  • Invest in natural infrastructure alone or in combination with gray infrastructure.
  • Incentivize enhanced community vulnerability assessments, planning and investments.
  • Bolster interagency coordination to enhance resilience.

WILDLIFE CROSSINGS

 Across the nation, there is a proliferation of wildlife–vehicle collisions. National crash databases estimate there are 300,000 reported collisions per year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. However, most researchers believe those crashes are substantially underreported, estimating the number of collisions to actually be between 1 million and 2 million and steadily increasing. In Wyoming, 15% of all reported vehicle collisions involve big game wildlife, costing nearly $50 million annually in damages to vehicles, human injury expenses and loss of wildlife.

Fortunately, solutions such as innovations in wildlife crossings, activated warning signs and animal detection systems have been deployed in some areas, drastically reducing wildlife–vehicle collisions in those regions.

To achieve significant reductions in wildlife–vehicle collisions nationally, Congress should create a discrete funding source to target concentrated areas of wildlife–vehicle collisions along the country’s transportation infrastructure.

FOREST AND LANDS INFRASTRUCTURE

Healthy forests are a major portion of America’s natural infrastructure, filtering air and water, providing recreation opportunities and fish and wildlife habitat, creating jobs and serving as a top natural climate solution. The national forest system spans 193 million acres and includes an extensive roads network that supports the national forest system’s multiple use mandate. The roads system needs investments to ensure it provides the appropriate level of access and minimizes environmental harm.

A comprehensive transportation platform would include provisions addressing roads in federal forests. Congress should do the following:

  • Invest substantially in the federal forest roads network through the Federal Lands Transportation Program to enhance access and reduce water degradation.
  • Codify the Forest Service’s Legacy Roads and Trails Program to prioritize corrections to deferred maintenance and improve water quality and fish passage.

CASE STUDY

Ausable River Watershed, New York

During major storms, undersized culverts block water, clog with debris and worsen flood impacts. Poorly designed and installed culverts also block fish and wildlife movement, impacting economically important fisheries. After Tropical Storm Irene damaged infrastructure in New England and upstate New York, The Nature Conservancy replaced and retrofitted culverts that had high ecological priority. They now connect more than 65 miles of previously fragmented fish habitat, mitigate future flood damage, improve safety on local road networks and reduce maintenance costs for communities.

With a width of 35 ft., the new culvert—an open-bottom concrete box with a natural stream bed—allows the stream to pass freely underneath, opening 6 miles of upstream habitat.
At lower flows, this culvert outlet in New York was perched above the water surface, creating a barrier to the movement of fish.
AUSABLE RIVER WATERSHED, NEW YORK © Erika Bailey/TNC

LEFT  Roaring Brook culvert prior to replacement. At lower flows, this culvert outlet in New York was perched above the water surface, creating a barrier to the movement of fish. The stream was constricted by the pipes’ combined span of 12 feet, which caused debris build-up and localized flooding.

RIGHT  Roaring Brook culvert replacement. With a width of 35 feet, the new culvert—an open-bottom concrete box with a natural streambed—allows the stream to pass freely underneath, opening 6 miles of upstream habitat for fish and enabling it to withstand high water flows.


 

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CLIMATE CHANGE SOLUTIONS

As Congress modernizes transportation infrastructure, there are opportunities to reduce emissions from this sector, now the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Expanding access to electric vehicles and charging stations is a critical solution—but not the only one—for tackling transportation sector emissions. Congress should take the following actions to reduce emissions while improving mobility options:

  • Provide direct financial support to state, local and tribal governments for electric vehicle charging infrastructure in federally designated corridors.
  • Incentivize transportation planning efforts that aim to reduce transportation-related emissions.
  • Invest in programs and technologies that reduce freight-related emissions, including diesel retrofits, reduced idling and electrification at ports and improved freight planning.
  • Increase investment in congestion reduction and public transportation.

PERMIT EFFICIENCIES

Facilitating the delivery of infrastructure can coincide with sustaining, and even enhancing, environmental outcomes. Decades of polls show that Americans from across the political spectrum support a clean, healthy environment. The administration should expand implementation of the federal government’s Eco-Logical approach, a successful program that applies a process to avoid, minimize and mitigate transportation project impacts on natural resources. Congress should execute and oversee new permitting authorities enacted as part of FAST-41 and do the following:

  • Ensure agencies have appropriate budgetary, management and administrative measures for effective implementation. Many FAST-41 tools have not been fully adopted and implemented.
  • Apply congressional oversight to review progress and implementation, identifying gaps and considering improvements before the December 2022 sunset date.