Despite intransigence from the Trump administration, John Porcari, a key member of President-elect Joe Biden’s transportation team, is promising a swift and smooth transition when the Biden administration takes the power levers in Washington on Jan. 20.
Porcari also said there are “real prospects” for a major investment program in federal infrastructure, perhaps as big as $2 trillion. Porcari provided insight into President-elect Biden’s infrastructure plans during the 2020 virtual annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
A former deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation and secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation under two governors, Porcari is serving as a key supporter of President-elect Biden.
“It really is an interesting time,” Porcari said in remarks at the AASHTO meeting. He said his remarks reflected his own views, not necessarily of the Biden team.
Porcari is considered a possible Transportation Secretary in the Biden administration. Others mentioned include Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“Yes, there are real prospects for a bipartisan broad infrastructure program,” said Porcari. “President-elect Biden has long favored infrastructure programs. It’s in his bones. You certainly have a willing partner in the President-elect.”
One of the key issues is flexibility, Porcari said, because different states have different needs.
“We need to think of transportation investments not as an end, but as a means to an end,” Porcari told state transportation officials. “We need equity, righting some of the ways of the past. Our aging infrastructure needs to be replaced. How do we do this in an equitable way?”
Porcari mentioned “two-fers”—both long-term improvements in transportation modes, roads and bridges and short-term boosts in construction employment to help boost the short-term economy.
“The Washington-centric view is a top-down approach,” Porcari told state transportation officials. “But you know that it’s much different.”
He said the federal role was to “aggregate” those state priorities so they “work together as a national system.”
On goods, Porcari said, intermodal “seams”—between rail and ocean ports, for example—are lacking. “We haven’t been terribly good at those seams. Relatively modest investments would be great for the economy,” Porcari added.
Going forward it’s a two-step process: the first is getting transportation systems back on their financial feet, mandating mask-wearing, rebuilding confidence through health measures. “Transit and aviation will be key early efforts and ones you will see early movement on,” Porcari said.
The second step is reauthorization or an additional financial stimulus package. “It’s not just to rebuild the economy but to chart a different direction,” Porcari said.
He said there “are real lessons to be learned” from the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which helped the nation recover from the Great Recession. Then-Vice President Biden spearheaded that act.
“Fix it first is more than just a slogan,” he said. “That will be really important. Not just shovel-ready projects, but shovel-worthy.”
Another priority, he said, was “continuing the process improvements” by making shorter, more predictable ways of doing transport projects. He said environmental and climate change will be “a critical part” of any national transportation initiatives in a Biden administration.
He said Biden will “try to find the right touch” balancing original equipment manufacturers and federal regulators will be a key aim of the new administration.
“We need to strike the right balance,” Porcari said.
AASHTO Chairman Jim Tymon called it “an interesting time” in Washington, but one that is filled with energy.
“There is energy that comes with that even in a pandemic,” Tymon told members during a virtual Zoom meeting. “We have a pretty good idea of what the Congressional landscape will look like in the next year.”
As for the House, Tymon said the Democrats will maintain control under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., but with a thinning majority. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., will remain chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.
Of course, at press time, control of the Senate was undecided with Republicans holding a 50-48 edge with two run-off elections in Georgia on Jan. 5. If Democrats win both, they win control with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote.
If the Democrats win control of the Senate, it is unclear who would lead various transportation-related committees in Congress, Tymon said.
Another issue follows the one-year extension of the FAST Act transportation federal-aid highway program at current spending levels passed last September. That means only that Congress kicked the can down the road regarding a long-term federal funding plan for transportation.
Advocates such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have long advocated for a phased-in five-year nickel-a-gallon increase in the federal fuels tax—18.4 cents on gasoline, 24.4 cents on diesel, unchanged since 1993. That will be part of the lobbying of the next Congress to obtain a long-needed dedicated source of funding for the nation’s infrastructure.
“We fully expect infrastructure to be a major priority of the new Congress, no matter who is in control of the Senate,” Tymon predicted. “You’re going to see Congress really dive in during the late spring or early summer on both these issues.”
That’s next year. This year’s lame-duck session of Congress is short, but could prove interesting. The Senate is only in session for 21 days in the rest of 2019. The House is scheduled to meet for just 13 days.
One priority at the state DOT level is relief from lack of funding due to the economic shutdown related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If Congress thinks just giving $500 billion to the states is enough for COVID-related funding relief for state DOTs, that’s not going to work,” Tymon said. “We continue to press for state DOT-specific assistance.”