The president’s infrastructure plan tries to break from the past by shifting spending away from new roads and toward public transit. It won’t be easy.



By Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich

If America is dominated by car culture and the call of the open road, there is a big reason for that: Over the past 65 years, the United States has spent nearly $10 trillion in public funds on highways and roads, and just a quarter of that on subways, buses and passenger rail.

But President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, unveiled this week, represents one of the most ambitious efforts yet to challenge the centrality of the automobile in American life, by proposing to tilt federal spending far more toward public transportation and coax more people out of their cars. Experts say that transformation is necessary to tackle climate change, but could prove extremely difficult in practice.

As part of his plan, Mr. Biden wants to spend $85 billion over eight years to help cities modernize and expand their mass transit systems, in effect doubling federal spending on public transportation each year. There’s also $80 billion to upgrade and extend intercity rail networks such as Amtrak. That would be one of the largest investments in passenger trains in decades.

And, while Mr. Biden’s plan offers $115 billion for roads, the emphasis would be on fixing aging highways and bridges, rather than expanding the road network. That, too, is a shift in priorities: In recent years, states have spent roughly half of their highway money building new roads or widening existing ones, which, studies have found, often just encourages more driving and does little to alleviate congestion.

“There’s no question that the share of funding going toward transit and rail in Biden’s proposal is vastly larger than in any similar legislation we’ve seen in our lifetime,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “It’s a dramatic shift.”

Historically, Money Flowed to Highways

Mass transit and rail got a fraction of the funds at both the federal and state level.

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