Transportation’s Future Looks Greener After Georgia Senate Runoffs

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For clean transportation advocates, Wednesday, Jan. 6 started out on a high note. Before the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters ushered out the Trump administration in a new spasm of chaos, the results of the Jan. 5 Georgia Senate runoffs reshaped President-elect Joe Biden’s chances for transformative policymaking across many fronts, including the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems. 

“This raises the chances that there will be a big stimulus or recovery bill, and that creates a lot of near-term opportunity,” said Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation For America, an advocacy group.

Doubling as an economic stimulus and climate action agenda, Biden’s $2 trillion clean energy and infrastructure campaign proposal was an early sign of his desire to change the way the nation moves. The incoming president pledged to create 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations nationwide, zero-emissions public transit for every city of more than 100,000 residents and the “second great railroad revolution.” 

Another sign came in his selection of Pete Buttigieg for transportation secretary: In his own campaign for the White House, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, pitched a national Vision Zero initiative, expanded biking, walking,and public transit amenities, and an overhaul of the gas tax. “It’s about jobs, it’s about climate, it’s about equity. All of these things need to be at the heart of our infrastructure vision,” Buttigieg said in a video last month marking his nomination.

In a Republican-controlled Senate, such promises would have had little to hang on, except for a thin reed of hope that infrastructure might be the last bipartisan issue. Biden’s Cabinet picks, including Buttigieg, will now stand a much better chance of approval by the Senate. And Democrats will be able to bring forward legislation that may have otherwise been DOA under Republican Whip Mitch McConnell. 

That includes the Moving Forward Act, the $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill that passed the House in July but hasn’t been heard in the Senate. Policy experts point to it as a potential starting point for a Biden-backed infrastructure bill. Alongside investments for schools, housing and broadband access, it would reauthorize funding for surface transportation with some significant departures from the past, including $100 billion for public transit, tripled funding for Amtrak and prioritizing funds for roads and bridges in need of repair. It would also spend $1.4 billion on alternative fuel charging infrastructure.

In a country that currently generates most of its transportation revenue by taxing gasoline purchases, and spends 80% of those funds on roads to drive on, this level of investment in more climate-friendly modes would represent a major turn. “Both Biden’s infrastructure platform and the Moving Forward Act would shift considerably more money to active transportation modes and public transit, as compared to the current situation,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute.

Transit systems approaching financial free fall due to the pandemic stand to benefit. The $14 billion in transit operating aid included in the recent Covid-19 stimulus package may not be enough to keep the largest agencies afloat if large numbers of riders do not return to trains and buses by the end of the year, Freemark said. That issue could be addressed in a future Biden-backed infrastructure bill, something transit advocates are now counting on. 

“Riders look forward to winning more Covid aid and equitable investment in our common infrastructure,” Betsy Plum, the executive director of Riders Alliance in New York City, said in a statement following the Georgia results. “We are eager to work together to get public transit back on track and realize its potential to help meet the country’s pressing needs for climate and racial justice.”

Even with the President-elect’s party controlling both chambers of Congress, passing a major infrastructure package would face hurdles. Issues such as the pandemic, health care, criminal justice reform, and reversing Trump tax cuts may outstrip EV infrastructure and the railroad revolution on lawmakers’ to-do lists. And while Congress is due to reauthorize transportation funding in 2021, the Senate could decide to punt, having already extended the FAST Act, an Obama-era surface transportation funding bill, for an additional year.  Whether legislators decide on a more ambitious approach, such as the one outlined in the Moving Forward Act, could depend on whether Biden follows through on his promise to seize transportation as an opportunity for climate action and environmental justice. 

“If the administration pushes for a lot of change, it makes it easier for the Senate to support change,” Osborne said. 

How that pushing would go over is another question. The Capitol Hill negotiation skills of the 38-year-old Buttigieg, the White House’s would-be chief transportation emissary, are unproven. Still, the landscape looks far more favorable for the incoming administration than it did last month. And there are other signs that “infrastructure week” may at last rise above unfunny-meme status. House Democrats have heralded the return of earmarks, which could increase bipartisan support for a larger infrastructure bill. Transportation investment could also appear in many forms, such as inside an environmental protection bill or a budget reconciliation plan.

“It’s unclear where transportation fits into all these moving parts,” Freemark said. But with the FAST Act expiring this year, “we’ll either have the the extension of what we have currently, or we’ll have something new.”

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