10 Transportation Priorities for the Biden Administration
This week’s announcement of Mayor Pete Buttigieg ends rampant speculation about who might fill that top spot. Buttigieg will bring valuable experience and background to the agency: of the 2020 presidential candidates, he had the most comprehensive infrastructure plan. He implemented a smart streets plan in downtown South Bend, funded by an innovative tax increment financing plan. As a mayor, he recognizes the importance of federal transportation grants and policies to the economies and quality of life of local communities. And he joins four other former mayors who have also held the Secretary position.
Now that the top position has been filled, the deputy position will likely go to a subject matter expert and the conversation will shift to the transportation agenda. The following priorities are some of the smart transportation policies that can help meet the most pressing challenges related to climate, congestion, safety, racial equity, and the economy.
Take a multifaceted approach to climate change
It was no coincidence that the incoming Biden Administration announced his picks for Transportation Secretary, Energy Secretary, and domestic climate czar in the same day. Transportation is the largest emitter of U.S. greenhouse gasses and climate change is a top, if not the top, priority for the administration. Most efforts to tackle the immense challenge in reducing transportation emissions focus on electrification of the vehicle fleet, and rightly so. Electrification is a massive and vital endeavor, but it should be the first of many climate policies. But equally important is strengthening the CAFE standards for internal combustion engines and requiring cooperation of the modal administration to include and prioritize climate impacts as part of the environmental review. Myriad other policy solutions should also be on the table, like investing in better transit services, encouraging smart roadway pricing, and better syncing transportation with land use.
Address the transportation safety crisis
The new administration needs to directly address troubling roadway safety trends. In particular, fatalities of bicyclists and pedestrians have increased dramatically over the past decade. U.S. DOT needs to take action to work with states to implement sensible enforcement of traffic laws, encourage smarter street design, and review the design and size of passenger vehicles effects on pedestrians and cyclists.
Invest in shoring up and reforming our transportation institutions
We have for a long time underinvested in our public sector transportation institutions. COVID-19 has made a bad situation worse, with budget cuts forcing out talented public servants and reducing institutional capacity and knowledge. Relief funding should be targeted toward maintaining and rebuilding the workforce, so those staff are ready to take on the challenges associated with recovery. In the longer term, federal policies can help reform institutional governance of select federal, state, and local agencies to better address 21st century challenges.
Target infrastructure investment to fix it first
With ongoing rumblings of another infrastructure week and bill tied to economic recovery, a smart infrastructure investment plan will target asset management and maintenance issues that have long plagued our transportation network. “Shovel ready” expansion and extension projects, a focus of past recovery bills, are less significant given the sudden and potential long term shift toward telework. Instead, investments should be made in shovel worthy projects including rehabilitation of key assets, addressing historic harms inflicted on marginalized communities by prioritizing environmental justice, and reducing life cycle costs over the long run. Such targeting could bring about much needed reform to the outdated distribution formulas that underpin current programs.
Bring greater transparency to DOT grant programs
For new investments, USDOT has the BUILD and INFRA discretionary grant programs that can help fund new projects. While only a small part of the overall federal program, these play an outsized role given their ability to leverage local funds and the broad discretion given to the Secretary to pick projects. But both programs have suffered from a lack of transparency and confusing evaluation metrics. Developing improved metrics to meet agency goals and transparently publishing them with the awards can help target to the best projects nationwide.
Empower public agencies to build faster and cheaper
In some cases, building new facilities is warranted to meet transportation goals. Getting the most out of limited federal dollars includes findings ways to responsibly speed up timelines and cut costs. Building infrastructure in the United States is notoriously expensive, particularly for public transit projects. Luckily there are several ongoing research projects examining how other countries are able to build faster and cheaper. Although some work is still pending, solutions lie in building institutional capacity to manage the projects, improve environmental processes, and enabling better governance.
Invest in intercity public transportation
“Amtrak Joe” Biden will inevitably have an interest in improving the state of intercity passenger rail in this country. While a national network of high speed rail lines would be great, such a venture will be very expensive, politically challenging, and take a long time to complete. While keeping high speed rail as a long-term initiative, USDOT should quickly adopt policies that improve intercity passenger services for both existing rail and bus. Investing in speeding up the slow portions of Amtrak’s network and expanding access to intercity bus networks can have much greater and broader short term effects and cost a lot less.
Encourage operational improvements to meet transportation challenges
Transportation investment tends to focus on things that involve steel and concrete. Many of the goals related to congestion, environment, and safety can be addressed through operational means. Congestion pricing, parking reform, and technology-based demand management are just some of the solutions that are proven to have demonstrable benefits. But these are politically difficult for states and localities to achieve. The federal government can help by providing incentives and flexibility to implement these to meet multiple goals.
Emphasize the land use component of transportation
Related to operational improvements, some of the biggest challenges in transportation can be solved through better land use. Bringing essential trips closer to where people live is a vital part of transportation, but is often lost in our overly-siloed transportation policy. For example, urban neighborhoods and rural towns often lack adequate grocery stores or healthcare facilities, forcing long bus rides or expensive car trips. New warehouse distribution centers are not directly connected to rail lines. Federal capital grants for transit do not require dense land use around stations. Addressing these issues within the current framework can help tackle many of today’s transportation challenges.
Prepare for safe introduction of unmanned vehicles
Lastly, the Administration should plan for the future by adopting smart policies that lay the groundwork for a safe and predictable introduction of ground and aerial unmanned vehicles. Although the technology behind driverless cars and drone deliveries has taken longer to develop than many predicted, the public policies needed to ensure that they are safe need to be in place now. Setting nationwide rules for safety certification, testing, and operations are necessary steps in ensuring a smooth and safe deployment.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.