With the 2020 presidential campaign ramping up, many of the Democratic candidates have released policy positions for primary voters. Transportation, which is not considered sexy, has received little attention thus far. One exception is former Vice President Joe Biden, who released an infrastructure plan in mid-November. Unfortunately, his current transportation plan somewhat resembles the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus plan to create jobs during the Great Recession.
I had high hopes for Biden’s plan. As the leading moderate Democrat in the race, and somebody with a track record of prioritizing infrastructure, I hoped for a plan with a national focus, sensible and cost-effective transit, and realistic funding and financing methods (tolling, mileage-based user fees, public-private partnerships, etc.). Instead, Biden’s plan largely focuses on local—not national—priorities, doubles down on the Obama administration’s interest in building high-speed rail, and relies on a fantasy tax on billionaires.
Biden’s $1.3 trillion proposal, described by his campaign as a plan to invest in the middle class, combines transportation, energy, resilience, water, broadband, and schools. Each of the components is focused on three goals: creating union jobs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and revitalizing communities. It is unclear how much of the total funding transportation would receive. Transportation is divided into six categories: highways, rail, transit and planning, smart cities, aviation, and freight.
The plan seems targeted at public employee unions, environmentalists, and working-class communities. By focusing on these three groups, the plan ignores the broader message that transportation improves America’s competitiveness and grows the economy.
I don’t agree with strengthening labor protections, but even for those who do, this is a secondary issue in transportation. We shouldn’t build transportation projects to create a bunch of temporary jobs; we should invest in transportation to improve mobility and the economy, and then the robust economy creates jobs. Further, Biden’s plan reads as though we are still in the throes of the Great Recession of a decade ago, not at the record-low unemployment we are now experiencing.
The plan includes some roadway projects, but even that funding seems intended more for cycling and walking than for cars and trucks. The document justifies providing direct funds to cities (rather than state transportation departments) based on the claim that cities and towns own most of the roads. Yet in several states such as North Carolina and Virginia, the state owns all of the roadways. And in most other states, the state, not the city, maintains most of the higher-volume, high-priority roadways.
The plan assumes that investing in high-speed rail (HSR) and light rail would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, studies have shown that bus, not light rail, is more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions since most light rail vehicles have few riders outside of peak periods. High-speed rail is extremely energy-intensive to build. The California high-speed rail project would have needed to operate for 71 years at average capacity to neutralize the emissions needed to build the line. If Biden’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there are much easier and cheaper ways to do so than building HSR and light rail.
The inclusion of light rail and HSR won’t help working-class communities, either. Building light rail lines typically leads to gentrification, which increases home prices and forces low-income minorities to move. (The new residents use light rail less frequently than the displaced residents). HSR is frequented primarily by wealthy business travelers. Lower-income residents use intercity buses, which benefit from improved highway conditions, not rail upgrades.
But even if we assume that Biden’s plan to, “Spark the second great railroad revolution,” is good policy, the proposed implementation is flawed. The plan proposes to shrink the travel time from Washington, DC, to New York in half, expand the Northeast Corridor to the south, and construct a nationwide end-to-end high-speed rail system. The plan seems like a reprise of the Obama administration’s failed HSR vision. One reason that approach failed is that it spread federal funding to more than 35 states instead of targeting a few mega projects. As a result, no actual HSR lines were built. And with a cost of at least $100 million per mile, most states were left with lines that they could not afford to build.
It’s not just my impression that the Obama administration’s HSR approach failed. Reports from the Congressional Budget Office, Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, and Office of Management and Budget highlighted the drawbacks of this approach. The most relevant criticism came from Rail Forward, a high-speed rail advocacy group. In 2016 testimony before the House Oversight Committee, President Tom Hart explained that while his group strongly supports HSR, the Obama administration’s plan was a case study of how not to build high-speed rail.
Perhaps the worst part of the plan is its funding source. Biden says every cent of his $1.3 billion plan would be paid for by tax increases on the super-wealthy and corporations. The plan appears to move away from the longstanding users-pay/users-benefit mechanism. The users-pay principle is fair, proportionate, self-limiting, predictable and an investment signal. It is supported by almost every transportation stakeholder in the country. Users-pay has worked well at the federal and state level for more than 50 years. Most importantly, surface transportation has a dedicated user tax free of the political dynamics in the general budget process. Under Biden’s plan, transportation would be competing with other policy areas since it is mathematically impossible for billionaires to pay for all government programs. The last time transportation competed against other policy areas, in the 2009 stimulus, transportation received only five percent of the funding, well below its proportionate share, which might explain the strong bipartisan support for the users-pay principle.
I realize that it is early in the campaign season, and his proposal is in part a political document. But I would urge the Biden campaign and all Democratic candidates to develop an implementable plan that is realistically funded and focuses on genuinely federal transportation priorities.
This commentary originally appeared in the December 2, 2019 edition of Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter.