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Joe Biden Doesn’t Go Far Enough On Transit

Joe Biden released his $1.3 trillion infrastructure proposal which largely preserves car-dominated transportation systems into the 21st century. Image: Gage Skidmore

Please wake us when the Democratic 2020 candidates get serious about transit in the 21st century.

Vice President Joe Biden is the latest presidential hopeful to tout a trillion-dollar spending spree to upgrade the nation's infrastructure and poke at the climate crisis, but his proposal is a grab bag of policies that keep Americans dependent on their cars for the foreseeable future.

The 10-year $1.3-trillion plan, which Biden announced Thursday, is laden with asphalt. It includes $50 billion in the first year of his administration for states to repair existing roads, highways, and bridges, another $10 billion over 10 years for projects in high poverty areas, and a $40-billion discretionary fund for projects too complex to be funded through existing programs (like a new regional transportation system or tunnel). He also promises to allocate new revenue for Highway Trust Fund to keep building new roads without providing details on how much will be needed or where the money will come from.

Biden is promising to give some funding directly to cities and towns, which presumably could be spent on more bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, but he doesn't outline how much of the pool of cash will go there. That priority would be up to local governments — and in any event, will do little to reverse a century of car-dependency.

The Corvette-loving Veep wants to dole out $5 billion for electric vehicle battery and energy storage technology promoting the use of electric cars (which have the same destructive capacity and congestion-causing properties as regular cars), plus another $1 billion for workers to install 500,000 charging outlets. But that idea, like Sen. Chuck Schumer's vehicle trade-in proposal, would enable more cars to dominate roadways at a time when cities should be reducing traffic congestion, improving safety, and discouraging suburban sprawl.

Biden recognizes that burgeoning modes of transit like electric scooters, bike share, ride hail, and even autonomous vehicles are on the rise. But instead of implementing best practices for street design, he wants to give $1 billion to five cities to pilot some design strategies, even though such infrastructure is well known.

In addition, Biden wants to spend $400 billion on energy research and technology to cut carbon emissions in the freight, aviation, and maritime industries, $100 billion to modernize schools, $20 billion to expedite rural broadband service, and $10 billion for projects in distressed cities.

But this all-of-the-above strategy has the danger of constraining Americans to a century-old system that is poisoning our air, roiling our climate, keeping us on the road longer, and making our streets more dangerous. Adding more roads to the interstate highway system only encourages contractors, developers, and banks to keep investing in sprawling neighborhoods which can allow for more cars.

Americans are driving more.

"This approach nominally accommodates all modes of transportation in a manner that does not disrupt the status quo, thereby avoiding having to confront the reality that the country’s current mode of development is fundamentally unsustainable," Kevin DeGood wrote in an economic report for the Center for American Progress. "Driving is literally killing us and the planet while also robbing travelers on a daily basis of an extremely precious commodity: time."

At least Biden is also thinking about rail. The former Amtrak board member and frequent long-distance rail customer wants to expand high-speed rail in California, the rest of the West and the Midwest, extend the Northeast Corridor through the South, build the Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson River, and increase Northeast Corridor speeds to slash commute times between New York and Washington D.C., although his plan does not have an explicit goal. Eventually Biden wants the railroad to construct a high-speed end-to-end rail line connecting the coasts to make long-distance travel a viable alternative to flying and driving.

All of this will be paid by boosting taxes on the wealthy and corporations as well as tapping existing federal loan programs, instead hiking the gas tax which would depress driving.

Getting Congress to go along with such a plan and securing enough money for it will be a steep challenge.

"The details of how they're going to pay for it is always important," said Greg Regan the Secretary-Treasurer for the Transportation Trades Department, a coalition of unions. "We've been advocates of raising gas tax and a future-oriented user fee system. How you pay for it in a sustainable way is a really important question, and we hope people take that seriously as they go forward."

Other Democratic candidates have released trillion-dollar climate change proposals, but reducing our dependency on cars (electric or otherwise) seems like an afterthought:

    • Bernie Sanders's Green New Deal plan would spend $16.3 trillion over the next 15 years to cut carbon emissions by 2030. But the Vermont Senator's proposals are focused on electrifying transportation rather than shifting people away from driving with $3.5 trillion to help people buy electric vehicles and $85.6 billion to build a network of charging stations for them. Sanders does include a $607 billion regional rail network, $407 billion for electric buses, and another $300 billion for public transportation, but his goal of raising public transit ridership by 65 percent would barely affect the number of people who take buses and trains to work.
    • Elizabeth Warren proposed spending $3 trillion to eliminate carbon emissions from buildings by 2028 and from vehicles by 2030. The Massachusetts Senator has also called for converting cars and buses to electric vehicles and transforming rail and aviation to be more energy efficient through research and development, but she hasn't articulated a fleshed out transportation plan just yet.
    • Pete Buttigieg proposed a paltry $10 billion in public transportation spending.
    • Kamala Harris $10-trillion climate plan references the need to reduce driving by halting the sale of gas-powered vehicles, though she offered no specifics.

Perhaps new candidates like former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg can offer expansive visions about our transportation future in the coming weeks. Maybe there could even be a transportation-related question at the Democratic debate stage in Atlanta on Wednesday.

"I'd like to see a question about how we're going to bring resources we need to modernize our infrastructure system," Ryan said. "We need more money in passenger rail, commuter rail, transit, highways, the needs of our system are massive. We can talk about policies and grants but that doesn't matter unless the money is there."

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