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Transit Officials Look to Uncertain Future as Election Looms

As the race between former Vice President Joe Biden and incumbent President Donald Trump comes to a close, transportation officials try to sort out what the next four years could hold for U.S. transit and sustainability.

Chicago Transit Authority's L Train
Chicago Transit Authority's L Train
Shutterstock/Leah Bush
Transportation leaders are already looking past Tuesday's election to the sort of policy directions they would like to see in a new presidential administration. 

Some of the most immediate needs are around stimulus funding for public transit, said Leah Riley, managing director at Nelson\Nygaard and former director of the Portland, Ore., Bureau of Transportation. 

“In terms of transportation, specifically, I really believe Congress needs to focus on transit,” said Riley in a panel discussion Monday organized by CoMotion. “The last [stimulus] packages have done very little except to keep operators employed. They [Congress] have put more money into the airline industry than they have for transit. And if you look at the number of passengers that airlines carry, versus the number of passengers that transit carries, I think it’s shameful.”

“We need to look at transit as the backbone for our economy. And Congress should be investing heavily in it,” she added.

With the 2020 election season nearing an end, pitting President Donald Trump against former Vice President Joe Biden, cities are already looking to the future as they ponder new transportation and infrastructure ideas under a potential Biden presidency.

“I think what cities want and are excited about… [is] to start looking at aligning our funding on infrastructure with where the country’s going,” said Gabe Klein, co-founder of transportation and technology consultant Cityfi. Klein also served as the commissioner of transportation in Chicago and as the director of transportation at the District Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.

Visioning around new projects or initiatives will not likely happen in what’s left of 2020, he added. 

“But I do think if we have a change in administration, then we could see some pretty dramatic shifts — particularly if the Senate changes hands — pretty dramatic, more holistic shifts toward clean energy infrastructure, combined with transit,” said Klein during the panel discussion.

The Biden plan calls for every jurisdiction of more than 100,000 residents “to have high quality transit access, which means a lot of federal funding,” said Klein, who envisions a “Works Progress Administration level of funding program,” calling attention to the large-scale federal infrastructure program taken on by the President Franklin Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression. 

Klein advises transportation officials in a new administration — or a continuing Trump White House — to have priorities guided by certain “North Stars.” And one of those should be efforts to reduce single-occupancy vehicles and fossil fuel power.

And some of the larger policy directions need to move away from only benefiting personal car owners. 

“If we’re going to electrify we can’t just put charging stations in peoples’ houses,” Klein added. “We’ve got to put charging stations at mobility hubs. If we design the infrastructure just for single-occupancy vehicles, we’re sorta doomed. One of those North Stars — the biggest one — has got to be the planet.” 

Meanwhile, governors in states like California and Michigan have already pledged to phase out the sale of new fossil fuel burning vehicles, with California setting its sunset on gas cars by 2035, and Michigan planning to take similar steps by 2050.

Incentives and other efforts from the federal government can help to speed along the adoption of EVs, build out the charging infrastructure and put in place the framework to develop training and manufacturing for a new transportation future, said Trevor Pawl, chief mobility officer for the state of Michigan.

“Right now, we’re planting our flags, or determining our horizons, whether it’s 2035 or 2050,” said Pawl during the panel. “But at the federal level we don’t have the level of mechanism, or the level of resources right now to meet some of these ambitious goals. We need more. So that’s why tomorrow is so important, to make sure that these executive orders that states are signing — to really paint the future that we all want — have teeth to actually operate.”

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 Yreka, Calif.