Talking Michigan Transportation

What to expect in transportation from a Biden administration

January 25, 2021 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 3 Episode 44
Talking Michigan Transportation
What to expect in transportation from a Biden administration
Show Notes Transcript

On this edition of Talking Michigan Transportation, Lloyd Brown joins the conversation again to discuss what we learned from the Jan. 21 Senate confirmation hearing for Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg.

Brown, director of communications for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, says the mostly amicable hearing and bipartisan respect for Buttigieg reflects the former South Bend mayor’s skill at building relationships.

In fact, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, called Buttigieg’s testimony "damn refreshing."

"You have put on a clinic for how a nominee should… act," Tester said. "You haven't avoided the questions. You've been straightforward. And you know what the hell you're talking about."

Buttigieg’s hearing comes during a time of renewed optimism for a long-term infrastructure initiative. Observers have heard that before with bipartisan agreement that our nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure need work but no such agreement on how to generate more revenue.

Still, speaking on the New York Times "The Argument" podcast, Jared Bernstein, an economic adviser to President Biden, said he heard a desire to get something done on infrastructure from some Republican lawmakers during the previous administration. 

"There are lots of Republicans who would like to invest in infrastructure, but Trump never had a plan," Bernstein said. "They said they had a plan. It was an asterisk. It was meaningless."

One idea being discussed would implement a carbon tax to help fund infrastructure. Some business leaders, including a former Dow Chemical CEO, are among the advocates.

At his confirmation hearing, Buttigieg spoke of his support for public transportation, complete streets, and called himself a fan of passenger rail.

"I'm probably the second biggest passenger rail enthusiast in this administration," he said, a reference to President Biden's years of riding Amtrak from Delaware to Washington, D.C.

Buttigieg also talked about the country's "auto-centric" history at the expense of other modes, while also putting an emphasis on safety. Safety advocates have noted, however, that candidate Biden’s transportation plan did not include a Vision Zero statement.

On Wednesday, Jan. 20, the nation's largest roadway safety coalition and traffic safety leaders sent a letter to the president calling for a commitment to zero deaths by 2050.

Photo courtesy of AASHTO.


Narrator: It's time for Talking Michigan Transportation, a podcast devoted to the conversations with people at the forefront of the ongoing mobility revolution. In the state that put the world on wheels, here's your host, MDOT Communications Director Jeff Cranson.

Jeff Cranson: Hi, once again, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. This week I’m going to be talking with Lloyd Brown, a multi-time visitor to the podcast now, he is the director of communications at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He and his colleagues are following closely as mayor Pete Buttigieg—I think soon-to-be Secretary Pete—makes his way through the confirmation process in the senate for the U.S Department of Transportation secretary. Lloyd, thanks for taking time to do this.

Lloyd Brown: Pleasure, always.

Jeff Cranson: So, what are you hearing, just to start with? I mean, you saw some, or certainly read, plenty about the hearing just as I did, and it was it was really quite amicable all the way around. I think there were a couple of moments of a little pushback, but overall a lot of bipartisan admiration and support for the nominee.

Lloyd Brown: Well, I think that's one reason why when Mayor Pete—then Mayor Pete, now Secretary-designee Pete, was selected for this position that those of us in the transportation business were so excited. He's really known as somebody who builds relationships. He's somebody who builds networks and seems truly interested in the issues and learning the issues. He also is somebody who I think has a serious mind for policy based on some of the things that we've learned about how he was leading his city in Indiana. So, there's a lot of positives and really not a lot of surprises that he had such a nice, easy confirmation hearing yesterday.

Jeff Cranson: So, I listened early this morning to The Argument podcast that the New York Times produces that's always pretty interesting, and they had an interview a discussion with Jared Bernstein who, as you know, is going to be an economic advisor in the Biden administration. He was really bullish on the chances of getting some kind of infrastructure plan. I think Michelle Goldberg even joked, you know, about infrastructure week, which has almost become like a parody of itself, but he seemed to think that, you know, he said that every time that he had talked to people previously when he was in congress that Republicans would take him aside and say, you know, ‘it's really only this current administration that's holding us back. We think there are some things we can agree on, and that was certainly one of them.’ I kind of feel like—there's a question in here by the way—but I kind of feel like I’ve been hearing this for so long that the one thing there's bipartisan support on is infrastructure. It's like the only bipartisan agreement is that we need to do something about it. I don't know that there's much bipartisan agreement for where the revenue comes from, do you?

Lloyd Brown: No, and that may be, once again, the thing that brings down the whole idea of it, but what we're really looking at, and I think we talked about this before, is that early on in, I don't know if it'll be the first hundred days, but early in the Biden administration we are going to see some sort of stimulus program. Maybe not exactly like the 2009 recovery and reinvestment act, but it's going to be along those same lines where you're going to see a significant investment on the part of the federal government in some infrastructure that would probably include things like broadband and probably include some green energy and things of that nature. It would also include transportation investments, and what those transportation investments would look like is not real clear at the moment, but you got to believe that it's going to be more focused on things that are more multimodal, things that are probably targeted around making the existing system more resilient, and that has some sort of nod toward equity and inclusion in this initial package. There's this looming reauthorization discussion that comes later in the year because the current transportation bill expires at the end of September. So, there's really two bites at the apple perhaps, but those of us in the transportation business are really looking at, you know, early on, perhaps the spring at some point, that there'll be a package that comes forward. Again, the question is where does the money come from, and what does it prioritize in terms of what it pays for.

Jeff Cranson: Well, I’m guessing that you've read the story and saw the thing that's being floated that some business allies of the Biden administration are pushing for a carbon tax as one means of funding infrastructure. Going to the point you raised about what the nominee secretary-to-be Buttigieg said in his hearing, do you think that gets any traction?

Lloyd Brown: Well, I think that there is an appetite right now for moving on and moving beyond the gasoline tax. Right after Secretary-designee Pete Buttigieg’s confirmation hearing—I’m still figuring out how to talk about him.

Jeff Cranson: I think people are going to settle on Secretary Pete. That's my guess.

Lloyd Brown: Yeah, well, okay, we'll use Secretary Pete, but I think what you're going to see is that—right after his hearing yesterday, the administration came out and said we're not going to go for a gas tax. That put a real chilling effect on anybody who still believes that with the new administration that there'll be any sort of additional discussion of increasing the fuel tax that we have now that's been stuck at the same level since the early 90s. Even more so, this afternoon Earl Blumenauer, congressman from the northwest, came out and said he's moving on from recommending a federal gas tax increase. He's abandoning that idea, and he's moving forward with some other ideas. He just says, you know, that there's just no ability to get that done, so I think that you're going to see different ideas floated and perhaps a carbon tax is one of those. It's certainly something that, you know, in the state of Washington Governor Inslee has been pursuing, and in Oregon, where Earl Blumenauer hails from, there's the VMT fee, you know, the vehicle miles travel fee. There are some other options on the board, and I think technology's catching up and could allow us to get at least some case studies and some testing done along those lines, even further, to build that knowledge of how it all would work.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, I kind of thought Blumenauer because of that, you know, what Oregon has done, and been on the leading edge of VMT and exploring other methods, that as much as anything is the fact that, you know, we've been talking about this for this long and nothing's happening anyway, and  that he was also just kind of saying we've moved beyond that as even a good way to pay for, you know, transportation and that fuel tax is antiquated. Sometimes, disingenuously, you'll hear critics of the fuel tax bring that up only because they don't want to have to take that tough vote, and it's not because they're that interested in VMT or something else either. It is very curious, I think.

Lloyd Brown: Well, the fuel tax is a is a user fee that is easy for everyone to hate, you know, regardless of what perspective of the of the political spectrum you come from. It's regressive. It props up and continues to depend upon a carbon-based fuel system, so when you're looking at progressive policies and people who advocate for those, if you can get to a vehicle miles travel fee, or you can get to some sort of carbon funding then you're going to be checking off a couple of different boxes, so you will see more discussion of that. I just don't know how far along they really are in developing a bigger plan, but I wouldn't be surprised if we got a lot more conversation around that funding source because, honestly, that continues to be, and has been for 15 years, the thing that is holding back a significant investment in the transportation system, and—

Jeff Cranson: And it’s interesting to us in Michigan because, you know, Michigan-based DOW Chemical has a former CEO that's among the business allies that's advocating for this.

Lloyd Brown: When you look at the continuing investments from the general fund, the federal general fund into the highway trust fund, what that means, and I think you in Michigan know this as well as is any state, is that when you when you pull that money out of the general fund, you have less of it that's available for teachers, and less of it it's available for other priority programs. This new administration has a lot of priorities and a lot of progressive policies that it wants to pursue, so it just doesn't have, I think, an interest in pulling more money out of the general fund to continue propping up the Highway Trust Fund. That puts an even greater emphasis on trying to figure out, and needing to figure out, where the funding is going to come from to pay for either a stimulus, or even the reauthorization of the federal Surface Transportation Program later this year.

Jeff Cranson: Well, let's listen to what the secretary nominee had to say along those lines. I mean, he actually used the words auto-centric in his hearing.

Secretary-designee Pete Buttigieg: There are so many ways that people get around, and I think often we’ve had an auto-centric view that has forgotten, historically, about all of the other different modes. We want to make sure anytime we’re doing a street design that it enables cars, and bicycles, and pedestrians, and businesses and any other mode to co-exist in a positive way, and we should be putting funding behind that.

Jeff Cranson: So, what do you think about that, you know, him saying that that we want to make sure we're doing a street design that enables cars, and bicycles, and pedestrians, and other modes? You and I talked about that the last time, back when he was first nominated more than a month ago, and it was all very fresh. It sounds like he didn't really shy away from saying things that he knew some folks yesterday might not like.

Lloyd Brown: Well, at the end of the day, if you're focused on a multi-modal system, and what that means is giving the people who use the transportation system the ability to choose a transportation mode that fits their needs and then a system that runs efficiently and safely, you're going to be on the right path. From our perspective, state DOTs have been looking at this and prioritizing these sort of pedestrian-centric designs where they are most appropriate. For instance, you're not going to put a bike path on a on a major interstate going across Oklahoma, but there are other ways that you can build out infrastructure that will support enhanced safety, support quality of life, and help people move freely throughout their community whether they're on a scooter, or whether they're on a skateboard, or they're driving a car. From that perspective, there's a lot to like about how Mayor Pete is approaching what he's described to his confirmation committee, and we're I know looking forward to working with Secretary Pete and his administration as they get to implementing their programs.

Jeff Cranson: So, I’m going to put you down as solidly against a bike path on an interstate going through Oklahoma.

Lloyd Brown: Sure, having recently driven across country in a bid to avoid COVID exposure on an airplane and taking my child back to college, yeah, I know all about the interstates. There are certainly some places where people should not be walking or riding their bicycle just because the vehicles are going so fast and just not built for it. It's not appropriate, but, you know, I also ride my bicycle a lot and I live in a very walkable community because I value those things. I want to see people able to safely utilize the transportation system regardless of the mode that they opt for.

Jeff Cranson: Well, and, you know, there's obviously a solid safety imperative there too. He also addressed that, and I know you talked about that with some passion the last time we had this discussion. He did send what I think—at least I know the folks at Streetsblog considered a pretty positive signal about ending, you know, trying to reduce traffic deaths and vision zero let's listen to what he said about that.

Secretary-designee Pete Buttigieg: Over the course of my lifetime, we’ve made a lot of gains as a country on dealing with the effects of drunk driving on road safety and fatalities, only to see distracted driving rise to become a new and deadly effect. I believe the number stands at something on the order of 36,000 or 38,000 lost in a single year to crashes on the road. We cannot accept that, and we need to move toward a vision where every trip is a safe one, whether it’s long or short, on any of America’s roadways.

Jeff Cranson: Did that go far enough to make people think that he's very serious?

Lloyd Brown: Very few people oppose a safe transportation system at its most basic concept. The issue comes in when you get down to where are you going to apply the money and what programs are you going to prioritize. I think that the experience that Secretary Pete has had in Indiana, in his community, developing a walkable community and a community that enhanced his downtown and rebuilt his downtown, kind of is an unsurprising reference and road map on how he's likely to roll out some programs for the broader nation. It's really in line with where, again, a lot of state DOTs are already focusing, you know, let's look at when we have to build additional capacity we will, but we also need to take care of what we have. We also need to look at what are the investments that can make communities more livable with a higher quality of life and support our economy, but it's all got to be built around safety first and that's what I heard.

Jeff Cranson: Well, and you're familiar with what NHTSA did trying to put a finer point on this issue because so many states, like I referred to on last week's podcast and actually a couple others during the summer, so many states like Michigan saw a tremendous spike in speeds and crash deaths despite traffic being greatly diminished by the pandemic. I’m still not sure that that's got enough attention from, you know, media, from lawmakers, from policymakers, and everywhere. I mean, we should be—that's another group of deaths that you can attribute to the pandemic, basically. So, I kind of wonder what you think about that.

Lloyd Brown: Well, I think that a lot of us in the transportation industry were quietly taken aback by watching the statistics this year and unnerved a bit that even with the public outreach efforts that we've done. Going back to, I think, that the first major siren and alarm came out of California in as early as May with some major enforcement, and Arizona, I think, had an early enforcement effort as well, but, you know, just watching the numbers climb and the discussions nationally within the industry, it's really disconcerting that we're in this situation. It comes back to the fact that people, given the opportunity, are driving vehicles with lots of power, and they have a fault sense of safety and they get out there and they drive too fast. We, I think, in the transportation business are becoming more aware of the need to design facilities that not only are safer in their construction but safer in how people exist within them, how they drive them, how they maneuver them, how they walk them, you know, more of a safe systems approach I think is the term that's becoming more common these days and figuring out ways to design the facilities to enhance how people behave in a safe way.

Jeff Cranson: We're never going to be able to completely human proof the system. I think that's why I feel like the technologies that are being developed, you know, that will eventually get us to higher states of automated driving are the only way we're ever going to really make a dent in crashes and crash deaths. I know that there are people that are still going to be skeptical for a while, and they're going to be concerns about that, but the bottom line is we're humans and we're going to make mistakes.

Lloyd Brown: Right, and driving is a very complicated thing, and anybody who's taught somebody who's never driven before how to navigate the streets around the Washington D.C. area can attest that it is a very complicated thing to operate a vehicle with all the other drivers out on the road at the same time. I’m not sure that the total answer is anything short of doing more automated vehicles, but, you know, that doesn't mean we can wait. We have to do what we can. We have to use the tools we have and move forward and try and help people understand the risk they take when they don't follow the rules, if they drive too fast, if they're in poor conditions, and try and get back to—zero is the goal and zero is always the goal. Towards Zero Deaths is our national strategy, so we got to try and get there. We can't wait, but it sure would be nice if people would drive a little slower and pay a little bit more attention.

Jeff Cranson: I did note that—I think he called himself the second biggest fan of passenger rail in the administration now and I had read some of that, and obviously we could presume given where South bend is and along the Amtrak corridor between Detroit and Chicago and also near the south shore, which is a very popular way for people to make their way into Chicago from that area, that he was a rail fan, but it was interesting to hear him give such a full-throated support and love for passenger rail.

Lloyd Brown: You know, again, this comes back to funding and where the funding is going to be prioritized, but you certainly can see a scenario in which higher speed passenger rail especially along the east eastern corridor, the I-95 corridor, and in between some of the closer together midwestern states probably will see some additional funding. The state-led high-speed rail corridors, or passenger rail corridors, have been managed pretty well, and the projects have been built out successfully, so you could see some additional investment. I think where you're going to see some question marks and maybe even some questions about whether they remain viable for the longer distance Amtrak routes, but, you know, we'll see where that shakes out. You can be a fan of rail and still think that doing a full cross country Amtrak route may not be the best thing.

Jeff Cranson: Well, is there anything else that you want to mention that you're hearing about what a Pete Buttigieg USDOT will be like or insights that you get from yesterday?

Lloyd Brown: I think you're going to see some significant interest in propping up the urban transit systems and helping out the rural transit systems as well. A lot of people don't realize that most state DOTs are the ones that operate or are the pass-through funding for the rural transit that literally are lifelines for rural communities and that help people get to clinics for their health care, help people access shopping to receive their food. I mean, these are really important services that are provided and often paid for largely by the federal government and passed through by the through the state DOTs, and they've struggled. The urban transit systems have struggled mightily as people have not gone to work in the core of their urban communities, and so that leaves us at a question on if you're a city like Washington D.C., or San Francisco, or New York, you know, you've got a system built on trying to handle this mass amount of people, but if people don't go back to their offices again what happens to these employment centers? How do you support a dispersed population? So, a lot more conversation around transit and what it looks like to support and maintain the rural systems but then also the urban systems.

Jeff Cranson: No, that's an excellent point. I’m glad you brought that up because people tend to think, and this is definitely the case in Michigan, that when you start talking about transit and buses that you're only talking about Grand Rapids and Detroit and, you know, Lansing and Flint and Saginaw and Kalamazoo, when in fact many of those rural counties, especially in the very rural stretches of the northern part of the state, do rely on those local transit systems. They are very important to people's lives, their livelihood and their ,like you said, their medical care and all kinds of appointments. I think that's something we should underscore. So, thanks, Lloyd, for taking the time to do this. I’m going to be really eager, I know you are too, to see how things go once he's in place and starting to make some of the changes that we've talked about.

Lloyd Brown: Well, it's an exciting time to be in transportation. I was talking to another colleague of mine the other day and really looking ahead that, you know, we've joked a lot about transportation week, but this may just be transportation's year when it sits at a nexus between all the policy priorities and really helping shore up and get the economy going back the way we want it to go.

Jeff Cranson: Well, I mean, not to take anything away from former USDOT secretaries, but I don't know that there's ever been anyone that is as skilled a communicator as he is in that role. Okay, thanks again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. Next week, I hope to be speaking with someone from Traffic Scotland about the concept they kind of pioneered to name gritters, which we call plows, and is something we've implemented in Michigan with great success. As of this recording on Friday, January 22, since we launched this as just sort of a pilot, we've already got nearly 9,000 entries for names, which is a lot more than there are snowplows in the state, but it shows that there's enthusiasm for this, and Scotland had a lot of fun with it. I’m eager to hear how it came to be. So, tune in next week to listen to that. Thanks again, Lloyd.

Lloyd Brown: Yeah, you bet, thanks.

Narrator: That's a wrap for this edition of Talking Michigan Transportation. Check out show notes and more by subscribing on Apple podcast.