How billions of dollars in infrastructure funding could make global warming worse

Over the next decade, decisions made by Colorado and other states about how many new roads to build could have major consequences for America’s ability to fight climate change. Transportation is the country’s biggest source of greenhouse gases, producing 29% of emissions, and has been stubbornly difficult to clean up.

New $1 Trillion Infrastructure Act invests billions in climate-friendly programs like electric car chargers and mass transit. But it also gives states $273 billion for highways over five years, with few strings attached. One Georgetown Climate Center analysis found that this money could significantly increase emissions if states continued to add freeway lanes.

Already, there are signs that even states with ambitious climate goals like Washington, Illinois and Nevada hopes to use federal funds to expand roads, such as adding lanes to a congested section of the Eisenhower Expressway near Chicago. In 2019, states spent a third of their highway dollars on new road capacity, approximately $19.3 billionthe rest being devoted to repairs.

“It’s a major blind spot for politicians who say they care about climate change,” said Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “Everyone understands that pipelines are carbon infrastructure. But new highways are also carbon infrastructures. Both lock in place 40 to 50 years of emissions.

The central problem, say ecologists, is a phenomenon known asinduced traffic demand.” When states build new roads or add lanes to congested highways, instead of reducing traffic, more cars show up to fill the available space.

Induced demand explains why, when Texas widened the Katy Freeway in Houston to more than 20 lanes in 2011, at a cost of $2.8 billion, congestion return to previous levels a few years from now.

“It’s not always intuitive for people, but the economic logic is quite simple: if you make it easier for people to drive, people will do more,” said Susan Handy, a transportation expert at the University of California, Davis, Who helped develop a calculator showing how expanding highways can increase emissions in different cities.

Teresa H. Sadler