Biden's infrastructure team sets focus on resiliency, rail, transit
President-elect Joe Biden's infrastructure policy will focus on investments in railways, technology upgrades, and resiliency as the former vice president and longtime senator will seek to deliver where Donald Trump did not.
That was the message delivered Thursday during an American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials virtual conference by John Porcari, co-chair of Biden’s infrastructure policy committee and former deputy secretary of transportation. Porcari outlined the Biden team's priorities, which could go into action soon after Biden is sworn in as expected in January.
“Just paying attention to lower lifecycle costs by building more resilient infrastructure — basically being a good steward of public dollars,” Porcari said. “That will be a critical part of the program.”
Biden’s published infrastructure plan, a part of his Build Back Better economic plan, includes a focus on providing cities with populations of 100,000 or more with resources to build robust transit systems. Porcari said Thursday Biden also aims to facilitate the building out of intercity rail connections, citing Minneapolis to Milwaukee as one example.
President Trump has not conceded electoral defeat, though the Associated Press and other organizations have declared Biden the presumptive winner. Trump has filed lawsuits challenging the results in several key states won by Biden, including Pennsylvania.
Porcari emphasized that his views were his own, not an official position from Biden, but is "where we're likely to be going forward."
Porcari told state DOTs to expect more formula funding and an increase in federal grant programs.
Biden wants to provide all Americans in municipalities with more than 100,000 people with quality public transportation by 2030, according to his infrastructure plan.
Porcari believes an infrastructure bill is possible within the first 100 days of the new administration.
“It’s no secret to anybody that President-Elect Biden has long been an advocate of infrastructure,” Porcari said. “He feels it in his bones.”
Biden is known for riding Amtrak for decades to Washington from his home state of Delaware to get to work, and has been a long standing advocate for public transit.
There has been some discussion on whether substantial infrastructure investment could be part of f a larger COVID-19 relief bill, similar to the 2009 stimulus spending Biden oversaw as Vice President.
In 2009, Biden took on a prominent role implementing then-President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. At the time, ARRA provided $48.1 billion for USDOT programs, with more than half going to highways and $8.4 billion for public transportation, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Some congressional staffers were surprised President Donald Trump did not deliver on an infrastructure bill during his four years. Trump campaigned on infrastructure in 2016, leaning on his reputation as a billionaire real estate developer and touting a $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan.
Robert Hickman, lead staffer for transportation policy for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said partisanship and a lack of focus prevented Trump from delivering on his infrastructure pledges.
“Frankly, I’m surprised,” Hickman said.
“This did seem like it was going to be a big opportunity for us to do something big and bipartisan for the country and unfortunately, we haven’t,” he later said.
Hickman said he expects more detail from the Biden team in the months ahead. For now, Hickman expects Biden to prioritize a COVID-19 relief bill and expects more than one to come to fruition.
“I have no doubt that if we pass another COVID bill, there will still be a need and pressure to pass yet another one after this,” Hickman said.
Meanwhile, the Senate’s future is uncertain due to two January runoffs in Georgia seats that could flip the chamber to a Democratic majority.
If Republicans are able to retain control of the Senate, Jim Tymon, AASHTO executive director, expects some changes in committee chairs. Sen. John Barrasso, R- Wyo., who led the passage of a bipartisan surface transportation bill in his Environment and Public Works Committee, could leave that spot to be chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
If that happens, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R- W. Va., would chair the EPW committee, Tymon predicted.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, may leave his spot as chair of the Senate Finance Committee to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, would then likely be chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Tymon said.
“We fully expect that infrastructure is going to be a priority in the next Congress regardless of who is in charge of the Senate,” Tymon said.