Increased focus on infrastructure spending expected under Biden administration, experts say

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Increased spending directed at improving U.S. infrastructure and a rethinking of transportation policies is expected under President-Elect Joe Biden’s administration, transportation industry thought leaders with the law firm Venable LLP said recently.

Members of Venable’s infrastructure team, including partner James Burnley, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation; Fred Wagner, former chief counsel for the U.S. Federal Highway Administration under the Obama administration; and attorney Ariel Wolf, leader of Venable’s Mobility and Transportation Technology team, spoke during a webinar earlier this month.

Burnley said that narrow majorities in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate mean that Democrats and Republicans are going to have to come together to get things accomplished on transportation and infrastructure issues.

“This is going to be really hard and it’s going to require people of goodwill on all sides of these issues to work together or we’re going to be where we’ve been for the last several years – stuck in a vicious cycle of revenue every year that will be less than the amount needed just to cover the current needs,” he said.

Burnley said that it could take some time for the Biden administration’s executive team to get in place. Citing past administrations, Burnley said it could be late in the year before some executive-level staffers are confirmed by the Senate.

First on the agenda, he said, would likely be the Highway Trust Fund reauthorization bill and addressing infrastructure needs.

Burnley noted that Biden’s plan – Build Back Better – would outlay $2 trillion over the next four years to address infrastructure needs. In addition, the Moving Forward Act, H.R. 2, which was approved by the U.S. House in July, would rebuild American infrastructure by providing $1.5 trillion for investments in roads, bridges, and transit, along with funds for broadband access, energy, wastewater, housing, innovation, and healthcare.

The new administration will likely also put a focus on environmental issues and clean transportation, as well as regulations regarding travel and the coronavirus.

Wolf raised a question regarding technology and innovation of whether the Biden administration would continue with the Trump administration’s policies of stepping out of the way and letting tech companies move ahead with their developments, or whether it would be more proactive in developing safety standards for technology innovations like autonomous cars and unmanned aircraft systems.

Wagner noted that just about all of the incoming administration’s transportation policies would be touched by civil rights and equity discussions. The idea of “mobility as a right” will impact planning and development, environmental justice, and other areas of transportation policy, he said.

“Mobility as a right means that we need to think about what solutions are there for folks who can’t afford cars, but who still need access to jobs, still need access to services … still need access to medical care,” Wagner said.

He anticipated that funding mechanisms would have an emphasis on those types of issues and that transportation projects would be weighed against the scale of how to promote the welfare of disadvantaged communities.

Wagner also said that any discussions about civil rights issues would center around climate change. Incorporating greener transportation policies will require rethinking how projects are funded and what gets priority, Burnley said. More drivers switching to electric vehicles may require a transition away from replenishing the Highway Trust Fund with gas taxes and possibly toward a vehicle miles traveled tax.

The Biden administration is also expected to focus on improving the nation’s rail infrastructure.

“I think what we’ll see is a President Biden who wants to make sure that in any package enacted involving infrastructure, that his rail initiatives are a substantial part of that,” Burnley said.