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Experts Anticipate New Interest in Transportation Under Biden

New leadership in the White House and at the U.S. Department of Transportation could signal renewed interest in projects centered on improving mobility around cities, as well as larger rail capital projects.

The U.S. Department of Transportation building in Washington, D.C.
Initiatives focused on the many forms of transportation — ranging from bikes to trains — could receive closer attention over the course of the next four years. 

Recent prominent appointments to transportation roles under President Biden's administration are a positive sign with regards to future investments, say those familiar with the sector.

“I am so excited to see this new urbanist perspective at USDOT [U.S. Department of Transportation],” remarked Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation. Kaufman called attention to not only the newly installed Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, but also people like Polly Trottenberg, who was named deputy secretary at USDOT.

Trottenberg is the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation under Mayor Bill de Blasio, and was known for championing a number of transit equity programs as well as implementing the city’s first Vision Zero program, a nationwide initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries. 

“The exciting part about having these urbanists, and especially New Yorkers, at USDOT is that there’s a new connection to cities, that wasn’t there before,” said Kaufman, during a panel Wednesday with CoMotion LA

Though the USDOT is a wide-ranging government agency with a number of transportation modes and initiatives under its roof, it has historically served as the nation’s top road-builder, playing a role in determining how Americans move through their cities and countryside, as well as having a hand in how cities evolve as road projects have been blamed for encouraging suburban sprawl. State and federal transportation agencies have also been singled out for their history of building highways with too little regard for the often minority or disadvantaged communities they were constructed through. 

These concerns — along with the outsized role transportation has on climate change — have been raised as the possible new lens the Biden administration will view transportation in the coming years. 

Expect to see a renewed focus on alternative modes of transportation like bikes, and added emphasis on transit, said Kaufman, calling attention to the historical funding patterns for car-centric transportation models and the 9-to-5 workday that "simply is not the reality for many Americans right now.”

Rail could also turn out to be the new transportation star in the new decade, say observers. Never mind that Biden was a long and well-known user of Amtrak during his many years in Washington as he commuted back and forth to his home in Delaware. 

“I think we’re in a real transformative time, in a lot of ways,” said David Cameron, assistant to the director with the Teamsters Rail Conference, and officer at large for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Committee. 

“I think that President Biden has the opportunity to be as transformational a president as Roosevelt was,” he said, in comments on the panel, adding that a “rail revolution” may be underway. 

The Biden administration, said Cameron, brings “the desire to give the United States the cleanest, the fastest, most efficient railroad system in the world.

“And he’s brought on a surprise choice as secretary of transportation, but I think an inspired one,” he added of Buttigieg, a former candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, and mayor of South Bend, Ind., who attracted quick interest, in part for his youth, charisma and intelligence. 

Buttigieg “brings star power to an otherwise staid agency, not known for having a celebrity being at its head,” said Cameron. 

It may take a political rock star to inject new confidence and inspiration into projects like California’s much beleaguered high-speed rail project to link Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project is years behind schedule and over budget. The High-Speed Rail Authority this week, asked Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature to agree to release some $4.1 billion in state funding to ensure continued construction on a 119-mile section of the bullet train through the state’s San Joaquin Valley, The Sacramento Bee reported. As it stands, the train is not expected to be operational until 2029. 

The project has been hobbled by cost over-runs, court challenges and California’s formidable mountainous terrain. In 2019, Newsom announced plans to scale back the project to a 171-mile route from Merced to Bakersfield, giving the often overlooked Central Valley a new, next-century transportation option. The connections to San Francisco and Los Angeles would have to come later.

The project, as it was originally envisioned, would cost some $80 billion. So far, some 87 percent of the funding has come from the state, while only 13 percent of the money has come from the federal government, said Cameron. 

Other high-speed rail projects proposed include the Texas Central, a 240-mile rail line connecting Houston and Dallas. The Brightline West aims to connect Las Vegas and Los Angeles with a 260-mile bullet train through the desert. 

Cameron says these projects, and others, are reason enough for the country to consider forming a “passenger rail trust fund.” 

“These are multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar projects. So you can’t just have a one-shot funding stream. You have to have a continuous funding stream,” said Cameron. 

Other areas which need, or should see, attention by the administration include all forms of public transit, particularly since the systems across the country have seen their revenue streams severely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. 

“Clearly, we have a need to fund the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority), repair the subways,” said Kaufman, calling attention to the New York City transit system, the largest in the nation. 

Subway usage declined significantly during the COVID-19 crisis. However, a number of essential workers, continued to ride and to rely on public mass transit. 

“These are people who rely on the system everyday, and they are the ones who keep the city running,” said Kaufman. “Subway ridership is returning, and we need to make sure the subways run on time.” 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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