This isn’t to say it’s a climate bill, per se. But it is part of the broader climate agenda being advanced by the Biden administration.
First, the bill devotes $30.5 billion to public-transit agencies. “COVID has really decimated transit ridership, and that has eaten a huge hole in agencies’ budgets,” Ben Fried, the communications director at the think tank TransitCenter, told me. Including the latest bill, Congress has spent $60 billion on transit over the past year, money that has been key to keeping the agencies solvent, Fried said. “If they didn’t get funding, then transit would have faced existential peril at the end of last year.” In Washington, D.C., for instance, the local Metro system was contemplating eliminating weekend service and permanently closing 19 stations. The new bill is enough to support agencies’ daily operations into 2023, he said.
Perhaps this is self-explanatory, but a flourishing public-transit system is inseparable from a national climate policy. There is no path to a decarbonized American economy that doesn’t include a larger, more prominent role for public transit.
That’s because mass transit lessens our reliance on carbon-spewing cars. Private passenger cars and light trucks account for nearly a fifth of the country’s carbon pollution—and electrifying cars alone isn’t enough to zero that out. As the reporter Alissa Walker has shown in California, even if residents only used electric cars, and the state’s grid transitioned to 75 percent renewable electricity, Californians would still need to drive 15 percent fewer miles in order to meet the state’s climate goals by 2050. Costa Samaras, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has estimated that, among other changes, transit use must increase at least fivefold to fully decarbonize the U.S. transportation system.
Second, the rescue bill has quietly become an infrastructure bill. It devotes $350 billion to supporting state and local governments. These funds, initially proposed to plug COVID-19-created holes in public budgets, in many cases now exceed those holes. So the Senate has allowed states, cities, and counties to spend that money on improving services such as water, sewage, and broadband. Because many water systems are vulnerable to climate change and must be adapted, this is de facto climate funding. The bill also contains $31 billion for tribal governments and Indigenous communities, including line items for new infrastructure, housing, and language preservation.
More broadly, the bill epitomizes the Biden administration’s more forceful approach to running the economy. It shows that much of the American political establishment—from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to Jerome Powell, the Donald Trump–appointed Federal Reserve chair—is comfortable pursuing a strategy of restoring full employment as quickly as possible, even if that creates some inflation in the short term. (Congressional Republicans might seem, for now, to make up the largest exception to this consensus—except they were on board with it when Trump was president, authorizing $3.6 trillion in stimulus last year.) But even beyond that new approach, the rescue bill is about to pass for the same reason that American industrial policy is coming back into vogue: After a decade of slow growth, politicians are ready to take back the role of managing the economy from technocrats and central bankers.