Policies addressing climate change, civil rights and equity will be linked with transportation policy like never before by the incoming presidential administration, according to policy experts in Washington.
Even before Pete Buttigieg was nominated by President-elect Joe Biden on Dec. 15 to be the next secretary of transportation, it was made clear during the presidential campaign that climate change and civil rights would be a major focus of the next administration. During his nomination speech, Buttigieg made a point to emphasize the administration's stance on these issues when it comes to transportation policy.
"This administration can deliver policies and resources in transportation that will create jobs, rise to the climate challenge and equitably serve all Americans — all while continuing to ensure the safety of travelers and workers alike," Buttigieg said. "We'll bring together leaders and communities from every corner — labor and business, left, right and center, urban and rural, communities of color, tribal nations, mayors, counties, states, and everyone who has a stake in American infrastructure — to design a better future."
Highways vs. Transit
Fred Wagner, a partner at the law firm Venable who focuses on environmental and natural-resources issues associated with infrastructure development, said the question of what projects get funded and advanced depends in large part on the metropolitan planning systems around the country.
"There's been a historic clash between major metropolitan areas and state DOTs in jurisdictions around the country," Wagner said during a webinar earlier this month. "There has been a tendency to promote highway solutions instead of other sorts of solutions that ... has worked to the detriment of underserved and disadvantaged communities."
Under the new administration, he said, that situation may be rectified by planning for greater transit opportunities, for "micro-mobility" to give opportunities to people who do not have vehicles or easy access to a train or bus station.
"I think the era of building and siting huge new highway projects around the country will definitely be closed in the short term," he said. "There will be an emphasis on fixing things first, and on maintenance of existing facilities.
"I think you're going to see, through funding mechanisms, discretionary grants programs that could be put into a new transportation bill that absolutely will have an emphasis on these types of issues. Not just transit per se, but transit that helps promote the welfare of disadvantaged communities. Not just ridership on demand that includes Uber and Lyft, but ridership on demand for specific communities that may not have access to it — like for people without a cell phone."
Wagner also underscored the importance of climate as a civil rights issue. "Many of the advocacy groups that support this administration tie them together," he said. "Where do some of these communities live, and how does climate affect them — in many instances the two issues merge." Policymakers are going to be looking at this very closely, he said.
With Congress finally passing a COVID relief bill earlier this week, there may be more opportunity to get a jump on a long-awaited infrastructure package when lawmakers return to Washington in early January.
Biden's Build Back Better
Biden's Build Back Better plan — his vision of how to go forward on infrastructure — is a $2 trillion package to be spent over four years. It includes not just transportation but also water infrastructure, energy and broadband. He has said he wants infrastructure legislation done within his first 100 days.
"The question then will be, how quickly is Congress able to respond," said Venable Partner Jim Burnley, who was secretary of transportation under President Ronald Reagan. "It's never as fast as you might expect. Typically with a new Senate it takes until March for the committees to be fully up and running. The House passed an infrastructure bill this year that can be a starting point — there's a lot of overlap between that bill and Biden's plan."
Waiting on the modal agencies
Burnley stressed that it's important to realize that the new administration does not get full effective control of the executive branch on Inauguration Day. It actually can take months before senior positions within the administration are filled, particularly those that require Senate confirmation. There are about a dozen of those leadership positions within the modal agencies at the Department of Transportation.
During the Obama administration, for example, it took until July 2009 to confirm the head of the Federal Highway Administration, while the head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was not confirmed until November. The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was confirmed in December.
"It's a slow and rolling process," Burnley said, "and while the non-Senate confirmation positions can be filled much more quickly, it just takes awhile for a new admin to really get control of the processes and then begin to carry out the new administration's initiatives."
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