As advocates for clean energy and good jobs evaluate opportunities to advance their issues in 2010 — from a jobs bill that could include energy efficiency measures to a federal clean energy and climate bill — there is another oft-overlooked vehicle that advocates would be wise to consider.

This year, Congress will likely pass a national transportation bill — legislation that comes up only about once every six years — through which the nation could reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector and significantly curtail petroleum use, thereby reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The transportation bill also could deliver major economic benefits, including millions of new construction, operations and manufacturing jobs — just what the doctor ordered to fix what’s ailing the U.S. economy.

“Transportation is the fastest growing sector in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Jill Kubit, assistant director of the Cornell Global Labor Institute, which encourages labor unions to become actively engaged in climate policy. “But it’s often neglected in terms of the solutions side, so we feel a real need to engage unions and workers around this issue.”

The Global Labor Institute isn’t the only organization that is planning to engage groups in the upcoming transportation debate. The coalition Transportation for America was created in 2008 by Smart Growth America, Reconnecting America, and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. T4America, as the coalition is called, now counts some 400 organizations that support its agenda to create “a new national transportation program that will take America into the 21st century by building a modernized infrastructure and healthy communities where people can live, work and play.”

“It’s astonished and gratified us the range of organizations that have realized a connection to transportation,” said David Goldberg, communications director at T4America. He listed AARP as being a T4America member that is concerned that the U.S. transportation landscape is unfriendly to aging Americans; the American Public Health Association as a member that is troubled by the health impacts of pollution from the transportation sector and the lack of physical activity that has resulted from our transportation infrastructure; and PolicyLink as a member that wants to provide poor communities with access to high quality and affordable transportation options.

Groups like Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council are also part of the T4America coalition because of their focus on climate change. “If you’re talking about climate change, transportation is about a third of the emissions, and you’re not going to be able to put all new vehicles that run on cleaner fuels out there in time to deal with the problem. Liquid fuel is going to be the fuel source for a lot longer, but part of what we need to do is not drive so much,” Goldberg said.

The transportation bill is so far-ranging that it touches many aspects of our lives. It addresses highways, bridges, highway safety, public transportation, railroads and high-speed rail, among other transportation issues. It includes the repair of existing transportation infrastructure as well as the financing of new highway and transit capacity. It targets metropolitan areas as well as rural areas. It regulates not only the movement of people, but also the movement of goods.

Groups that seek reform of the transportation system also hope to address a wide diversity of issues through the transportation bill-climate change, health and safety, equity, smart growth and economic opportunity, among others. There is also a significant amount of money at stake, as well as the potential to create a large number of jobs. The last transportation bill was funded to the tune of $286 billion over six years; the current proposal by Minnesota Democrat James Oberstar, the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, would increase that amount to $500 billion over six years, including $50 billion for high-speed rail. Rep. Oberstar testified in July that the bill will “create or sustain approximately six million family-wage jobs.”

Many economists consider the transportation sector to be rife with job creation potential. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute (Transportation Investments and the Labor Market) found that a $250 billion investment in the U.S. transportation system would create more than 2.8 million direct and indirect jobs. The study also looked at the quality of the jobs that would be created by transportation investments and found that they were more likely to be unionized and less likely to require a college degree.

“Across the board, it’s a pretty dense industry when it comes to unionization,” said Ed Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. “This means you have higher wages, better benefits and better training. You probably have good quality health care, and you’re more likely to have a pension.”

Although Wytkind’s organization does not represent workers in transportation manufacturing, he is very interested in the potential for increased transportation investment to create not only construction and operations jobs, but also domestic manufacturing jobs. “Most of our manufacturers are buying components and intellectual property from overseas. This [transportation bill] is a great opportunity to look at the next generation of locomotives and passenger rail cars and buses and make sure they’re not only more energy efficient, but that they also support American jobs,” Wytkind said.

Currently, most U.S. transportation funding comes from the gasoline tax, which has not increased since 1993 and is not indexed to inflation. At 18.3 cents per gallon, the federal tax has lost 33 percent of its purchasing power over the last 15 years, according to Oberstar. If more funds are to be invested in transportation to create the jobs and other benefits for which many groups are advocating, the gasoline tax will need to be increased or a new and sustainable source of funding will need to be identified. However, with the economy still in a state of recession, most politicians are loath to support any tax increases. This is a key reason why the transportation bill, which expired in September 2009, has yet to be taken up by Congress and may not be seriously considered until fall 2010.

Funding is not the only challenge for those who seek changes in the U.S. transportation system to address environmental, public health, equity and other critical issues. Many groups still differ on their priorities. For example, while most groups support increased transportation investment, there are divisions as to whether public transportation should be on a more equal footing with highways. There are also divisions between organizations that support fix-it-first policies that prioritize repair and maintenance work on roads over new road and bridge construction, and those which argue that new road construction is needed to address traffic congestion and other problems.

These issues will be discussed and debated throughout 2010 as Congress deliberates the transportation and jobs bills. In December, the Obama administration proposed that the jobs bill include a $50 billion infrastructure investment to go mainly toward highways, transit, rail and aviation. The House jobs bill, which was passed on December 16, included approximately $37 billion in transportation investments.

To the extent that these investments create well-paying jobs and move the country toward a cleaner and more sustainable transportation system, they represent progress. But the transportation bill is still the 800 pound gorilla. As T4America’s Goldberg put it, “By all rights, this [transportation bill] ought to be the best opportunity in a generation to create a bold new vision for our national transportation policy.”

A longer version of this article is available at www.apolloalliance.org.