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Buttigieg and Biden talk Infrastructure

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Last week, I wrote about what the League hoped to hear from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg when he testified in front of Congress. We wanted to hear him talk about a people-centric transportation system, the need to reduce speed to ensure safety, and we had hoped to hear specific call outs to investments in bicycling, walking and Complete Streets. We heard most of what we wanted, but would have liked to hear more specifically on investments in bicycling, walking, and safer, complete streets. 

This week, we heard President Biden unveil the American Jobs Plan, an enourmous package for infrastructure and economic recovery. While the bicycling community can be almost giddy to see Secretary Buttigieg or the president actually riding a bike, we rarely hear a president talk about bicycling, or even transit for that matter. It is always roads and bridges when it comes to talking infrastructure. 

However, the White House’s fact sheet on the plan goes further than we’ve seen a White House, or a US Department of Transportation go before.

Fix it Right

In the White House fact sheet, the President proposes $115 billion to modernize roads, highways and bridges under the subheading, “Repairing our Roads and Bridges” but the document proposes not just a “fix it first” policy but a “fixing them right” proposal that addresses safety and access for all users — that should mean people walking, biking, or using mobility devices as well as people driving. It is also important to note that, in this description, all of the funding for roads is for repairing and modernizing existing roads, not for building new ones. 

This is incredible. For a decade, the League has been supporting our allies and working with government officials to define ‘fix it first’  as ‘fix it to complete streets standards.” Having the White House trumpet this language is a serious move forward for bicycling, walking and all roadway users. 

Safe Streets for All 

In the same paragraph, the Biden Administration  also unveils a $20 billion dollar program to improve the safety of all road users, and specifically calls out pedestrians and bicyclists, including funding local safety plans. This makes the safety program 17% of the overall proposal – a much higher percentage for safety funding than we see in yearly allotments in the transportation bill. 

This approach would do two things: it would fix specific unsafe infrastructure through the Safe Streets for All program, but it would also redesign existing streets to meet higher safety standards. 

It’s all in the details (what is not in the current description)

Despite the good news, the White House’s fact sheet is just an overview, and the devil will be in the details. What is not defined in this description is a specific program to fund bicycling and walking networks. The League is working with partner organizations to push for such a program. Increasing funding for biking and walking infrastructure will be critical to transforming our transportation system and normalizing a people-centric approach that makes it easy for people to choose to make trips by biking or walking. 

The Safe Streets for All program specifically calls out funding local Vision Zero plans, which will be an important detail for advocates to work on as many Vision Zero plans include an emphasis on enforcement. To act on our values of equity, the League will advocate for that funding to go to infrastructure and design as the most effective way to improve safety.   

Transit Access 

Immediately following roads,  the American Jobs Plan addresses plans to Modernize Public Transit by investing $85 billion to update and expand transit systems. The League has supported increased investment in transit and the calls for emergency funding during the pandemic.

The League is also working with transit (and bicycling) partners to ensure that funding for bicycling and walking networks focus on connecting people to transit and other every day destinations. Access to transit was not in the fact sheet, so again we’ll focus on that moving forward. 

Reconnecting Communities

The plan also calls for a $20 billion reinvestment in communities destroyed when highways were built that cut off neighborhoods and town centers. The program would work to remove those highways and rebuild people-centered connections, and undo environmental damage.  

This program builds off of efforts in the Senate to do similar work, and again the devil will be in the details. It will be critical to ensure full and equitable public participation, and assurances that in redeveloping these areas, current residents are not displaced. This is one of the many areas we’ll be looking to the Biden Administration to work across the silos of transportation, housing and land use to create walkable and bikeable communities for all. 

Sustaining the Messaging Momentum 

Reading the overview of the American Jobs Plan, we see a lot of similar themes to what we heard at Secretary Buttigieg’s testimony at the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. That’s a good sign that this Administration has a coordinated and comprehensive idea for what it wants for the future of transportation.

In his five hours of testimony last Thursday, Secretary Buttigieg answered questions from the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. We were hoping to hear him talk about how our transportation needs to be people- centric, and that that means reducing speed and increasing funding for bicycling and walking infrastructure. 

On a people-centric transportation system: He didn’t say the words “people-centric transportation system”, but he took almost every opportunity to talk about the need to make a transportation system work for everyone, and to offer better ‘mobility options’. 

The need to reduce speed: In five hours this basically came up once. Buttigieg didn’t mention it in his remarks and only one member of Congress asked a related question. That said, Buttigieg did answer that building better infrastructure can reduce speed and increase safety for all users.

Investment in bicycling and walking: When asked about bicycling and walking, Buttigieg answered about the need for safety and access, but never directly mentioned increased funding. In part, he didn’t get asked the right questions. He also was asked about complete streets, and talked about his experience in South Bend. 

Overall, I think we would have liked more conversation about how to change our transportation system from auto-centric to people-centric, but he was never asked those questions. However, not having bicycling and walking come up could also mean that our issues are less controversial than they once were.  

What we learned
  • The Republican members really pushed Buttigieg to keep the infrastructure discussion bi-partisan, and to stay within funding and policy limits of reauthorization
  • The Democrats want Buttigieg and the Biden Administration to go big, and integrate in climate and equity
Is Buttigieg our Fauci?
  • Buttigieg clearly impressed the members of Congress with his knowledge and understanding of transportation. More than one member of Congress said he had exceeded their (low?) expectations!
  • Buttigieg really cares about this topic, and he is a strong communicator. He is already the most public facing Cabinet member, but with the Biden White House signalling that infrastructure is next, he is spending more time with members of Congress and seems to be constantly doing public speaking events.

He and his staff like to have him out speaking. He’s already met with many members of Congress one on one, and in White House meetings, and he’s been out talking to the public as well.  On Monday he discussed Transportation Equity with Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS)  – Where they both discussed how they are bike commuters!  

In the past bicycling and walking have either seemed to be an afterthought for our friends, or a waste of federal funding for our detractors. This Secretary’s constant refrain of making a people-centric, equitable transportation system may be our opportunity to be a constructive part of the solution.