The agreements between Republicans and Democrats, both locally and nationally, seem as few and far between as ever. But the politics of polarization, a game which both sides masterfully plays, takes a backseat in the discussion of transportation and infrastructure funding. Former South Bend, Indiana mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s 86-13 Senate confirmation as Transportation Secretary last week is one example of how transportation interest crosses party lines.
Both the left and the right believe in massive federal funding for roads, bridges, transit, and the like. There is no shortage of lawmakers (especially during an election period) presenting constituents with lavish packages detailing expansive projects and initiatives that will bring jobs, attract commerce, address climate change, and make said district or state or country cutting edge. Buttigieg did just that during his 2020 presidential campaign. There is a shortage, however, in funding these plans.
Former President Donald Trump campaigned for more than $500 billion in transportation funding in the stretch run of the 2016 election. That robust measure never really took flight when the administration began in 2017. A version of that plan finally passed in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives in early 2020, but the high price tag shooed off enough Republicans to hold it up in the Senate. In fact, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made sure to not include it in a pandemic response bill last spring. McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, was Trump’s Transportation Secretary. Dinner that April evening must have been fun.
The new administration’s $2 trillion “Build Back Better” infrastructure plan includes aggressive efforts in green energy and an overall focus on climate change. Initiatives vary from heavy investment in mass transit, to a higher focus on electric and autonomous vehicles. But they also will aim to tackle the huge tasks of repairing ailing bridges and improving traffic-weary roads in growing metropolitan areas.
President Biden and Secretary Buttigieg will likely face the same difficulties as Trump in getting their pricey package approved, better yet, funded.
“[Their] plans are no different than Obama and Trump’s – spend more on new roads and bridges,” veteran Capitol Hill reporter and “Regular Order” newsletter author Jamie Dupree told the AJC and 95.5 WSB. “The biggest stumbling block is simple,” Dupree explained. “How do you pay for it? Most people don’t want to vote to increase gas taxes. The big problem is that as we transition more to hybrids and electric vehicles, they don’t buy as much or any gas! So how do you get the revenue?”
Dupree said that the White House is exploring a radical departure from a federal gas tax that hasn’t increased in 28 years and draws in less and less money, as cars become more fuel-efficient. But he said a new plan of charging drivers by vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is controversial. The government would have to track how vehicles travel, similar to a moving electric or water meter. While some states and other countries track VMT in a limited manner, the idea seems foreign and radical to many in the states.
Adding the phrases “government-tracking” and “tax increase” to any policy is often the recipe for political poison.
So the feds and the states may need to collaborate to build more toll roads to fund a pricey infrastructure plan. Departments of Transportation nationwide have leaned this way in recent years, as evidenced by the proliferation of Express Lanes in Metro Atlanta in the last decade. And there are many more variably-priced toll lanes to come in the 2020s in the Peach State.
GDOT has battled both the decrease in fuel taxes and an erosion of funding in the state budget for years, spurring its push for those toll lanes.
Public-private-partnerships, where investors help foot the bills and then share in later revenue-collection, have helped accelerate the expansion of both toll lanes and other big projects, such as “Transform I-285/GA-400” in Sandy Springs. PPPs help Georgia flatten up-front costs, so GDOT can build more sizable projects simultaneously.
Georgia has been inventive in pushing big transportation projects forward and Biden, Buttigieg, and U.S. DOT will have to be also. The Trump Administration was unable to pass a huge infrastructure bill with heftier favorable party margins in both sides of Congress. Biden and Buttigieg will likely have to walk a tightrope to widen more roads.
But the good news here is that traffic is a unity ticket. Frustration with any kind of travel delay unites many, regardless of ideologies or demographics. The nitty gritty of bridge building and electric vehicle research do not, however, impassion many people. Less emotion means less interest, which means transportation plans often slide to back burners.
With the nearly-$2 trillion COVID-19 relief package in the balance and a series of virus-related unknowns on the horizon this year, traffic pain may not yet hit lawmakers in the feels. And paying for infrastructure may become even more difficult after doling out pandemic aid. So don’t be surprised if the legislative gridlock in Washington D.C. stymies policy in aiding traffic gridlock nationwide.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at [email protected].