Based on results of their times in office as well as this year’s statements and campaign documents, the visions of the two major candidates for president this fall could not be more different regarding public transportation policy and investment commitments. Former VP Joe Biden draws from policies of the Obama Administration, as well as his party’s commitments to investing in transformative transportation choices. President Donald Trump, on the other hand, has made promises about investing in infrastructure at transformative levels, while proposing to gut public transportation programs. Trump’s administration has withdrawn from the previous administration’s green policies — primarily because he views concerns about climate change as a “hoax,” as he has said many times publicly.
Yet, both share a vision of greater investments in transportation infrastructure as a means to growing U.S. manufacturing and other higher-wage employment opportunities. And that is not the only shared commitment, as we will learn in this article.
Regardless of electoral outcome, some trends that have been accelerating for years will continue well into 2021 and beyond. Here, we will explore all of it.
Biden believes in some of “Green New Deal”
Biden calls for policies that “provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options through flexible federal investments with strong labor protections that create good, union jobs and meet the needs of these cities — ranging from light rail networks to improving existing transit and bus lines to installing infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists.” Biden also promises to build “a carbon pollution-free” power grid by 2035 and make “dramatic” new expenditures in building energy efficiency, with a goal of completing at least four million commercial building retrofits and 1.5 million energy-efficient and “affordable” new homes by the end of his first term. The 10-year $1.3-trillion plan includes $50 billion to be spent in the first year of his administration for states to repair existing roads, highways, and bridges; another $10 billion over 10 years for projects in high poverty areas; and a $40-billion discretionary fund for projects too complex to be funded through existing programs, such as the trans-Hudson tunnel program. He also promises to allocate new revenue for the Highway Trust Fund to keep building new roads, but his campaign has not provided details on where the money will come from — although his campaign has promised to raise taxes on those with annual taxable incomes of $400,000, or more, to pay for a variety of commitments Biden has made.
“Amtrak Joe” also promises a huge investment in what his campaign calls a “second railroad revolution,” with billions of new dollars for high-speed and intercity rail, as well as in Amtrak to backfill deferred maintenance and rehabilitation of century-old (or older) rail corridors and related infrastructure, particularly for the Northeast Corridor. For both transit and intercity/high-speed rail, Biden proposes to use existing programs. This contrasts with those further left in his party who advocate a Rooseveltian Green New Deal. Even though he promises a “historic” level of investment in clean energy innovations, a Biden presidency will employ existing programs in the Department of Energy, such as ARPA-E and renewable energy programs. All these proposals are a reprise in many ways of the Obama Administration’s investment approach that comprised the infrastructure investments in the 2009 Recovery Act.
Trump continues to promise infrastructure, with little to show
Despite President Trump’s promise to fund “world class infrastructure” in his second term, his record in his first term has been far less than the promise, which was made in his last campaign as well. Nor has any new policies been proposed with specifics.
Despite Trump’s campaign promises, his Administration’s initial $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, was stalled in Congress almost from the beginning, because it was basically a set of policy positions that were never introduced as legislation. Moreover, it focused on repair and expansion of the national roads and bridge networks.
In fact, the most recent version of the plan proposed to freeze or cut public transportation funding programs. Further, various Administration-submitted budgets proposed to eliminate these programs, which Congress have largely ignored.In fact, the Trump Administration has stalled transit project reviews and grant awards that cleared environmental reviews, even on projects that Congress had specifically identified and funded in annual bipartisan appropriations bills that Trump had signed — delays that many in Congress have argued as illegal. Such delays cost local transit providers more than $850 million, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report, due to the cashflow shortages that these delays cause, which by federal statute must be borne by the project sponsors. The federal approval wait time between grant requests and actions by the Federal Transit Administration more than doubled under the Trump Administration, according to the agency’s own data. The slowdown can only be construed as deliberate and ideological because Congress continues to fund transit capital projects at Obama-era levels — about $2.6 billion annually — and Trump continues to sign these bills to avoid government shutdowns. Transit projects of more than $300 million waiting for a “Full Funding Grant Agreement” — money to start construction — now wait an average of 391 days — up from 176 days during the Obama Administration.
In short, the positions and records of the two primary presidential candidates could not be more different. The incumbent has made promises but has acted in many ways the opposite of those lofty goals; his challenger builds on the experience of the administration in which he was VP, led oversight and implementation of a huge expansion of public transportation and intercity and high-speed rail funding — and proposes an even bigger expansion of that record.
Policies that won’t change
Despite these two very different visions of how the federal government should invest in public transportation, there are several policies and trends that will not change, and perhaps even accelerate, regardless of whether Trump is re-elected or Biden is victorious in November. First among these is the growing state and local infrastructure programs funded by voter-supported referenda and state legislatures and governors as part of campaign promises. Examples include Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s promise to “fix the damn roads,” but her administration has also increased transit investments and many Michigan counties have also seen voter-passed referenda. For more than 20 years, voters have approved state and local referenda for surface transportation programs, including ambitious transit plans, at a rate of more than 70% of ballot measures. If anything, this success rate has increased slightly in recent years, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence, a Washington, D.C.-based program of APTA, which tracks these measures. Moreover, voters in conservative states like Texas, Georgia, and Utah support these measures, as well as many “blue states.” Even where referenda are not allowed by state constitutions, legislatures have stepped in to expand transit funding. Notable examples include Pennsylvania and Missouri. In Indiana, legislation has also been passed allowing “self-help” referenda such as what is commonplace in the western U.S., which resulted in voter support for a bus rapid transit network in Indianapolis.
Some pain will likely be borne initially, as many of these programs are supported by sales and income tax revenues that are more susceptible to economic downturns than other taxes. The National Conference of State Legislatures already paints a dire picture regarding the effects of the economic downturn, projecting revenue losses of between 15% and 38%, depending on how much each state’s economy relies on tourism and the energy industries. Transit agencies, many of which have their own dedicated sources of local and state funding, are experiencing similar levels of distress.
Another trend that should continue regardless of November’s electoral outcome is the steady greening of the public transportation infrastructure. The number of bus orders that specify battery-electric or fuel-cell propulsion now exceeds more than 1,000 and the number is expected to grow rapidly, thanks to the commitments of transit agencies in New York, New Jersey, Seattle, and of course, in California, due to the Golden State’s mandate requiring all transit bus fleets to be zero-emission by 2040. No agency appears to be retreating from these commitments as of press time, despite the severe economic downturn and extra cleaning expenditures brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, many non-electric rail projects are looking into zero-emission vehicles as well.
Finally, regardless of who controls the presidency and chambers of Congress, the transit industry and its policymakers will continue to require procurements of rolling stock and infrastructure with U.S.-produced components, steel, cement, and other goods. Allowances for local labor preferences and the ban on Chinese-owned bus, trains, and systems will also likely continue regardless of election results. Indeed, all of the recent legislation enacted has been passed with large bipartisan majorities.
Slow or fast, but the same direction
What seems clear from both the severe economic downturn and the presidential campaign is that the trajectory of recent policy trends will not change, only their pace, which will be driven by the election results and the pace of economic recovery. Support for public transportation and other investments in a green economy remain very high, even if support for a “Green New Deal” remains to be a mixed bag. Call it a greening trend, only by another name.