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Three times over the last 20 years, voters in Austin have been asked about building out a light rail system. The Texas capital has been thefastest growing metro area in the U.S. for most of the last decade, a distinction that’s come with some of the worst traffic congestion. Still, in 2000 and 2014, Austinites turned down referenda aimed at boosting public transportation.
That changed on Nov. 3, when58% of voters approved Project Connect, a $7.1 billion plan to add 27 new miles of rail service, an expanded all-electric bus system, and affordable housing along new routes.
The success of Project Connect is significant, not only because of its failed predecessors. It’s an example of how cities have sought to boost infrastructure without the national road-and-rail build-out that President Trump once promised, according to Austin Mayor Steve Adler.
“In the absence of a federal infrastructure plan, we came up with a new funding model to move this project ahead,” Adler said. The city put together a 8.75-cent property tax hike, paired with a $460 million bond measure, to cover the majority of Project Connect’s construction, operations and maintenance costs. Austin isn’t alone in taking the lead on policies and investments that the federal government might have led in the past, he said. “There is no question that cities are stepping up today in ways that far exceed just four years ago.”
Yet plans like Project Connect still hinge on federal buy-in — something that proved challenging for many cities taking on major infrastructure projects during the Trump years. What was that like, and what might that relationship look like under President-elect Joe Biden, who is primed to take office on Jan. 20 with a host of ideas for “building back better”?
A mixed record
Donald Trump campaigned on a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” he said in his 2016 election night victory speech. “And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
A real estate developer who once referred to himself as “the builder president,” Trump held multiple “Infrastructure Weeks” calling for investments in transportation, electricity and water systems during his presidency. Though the rollouts were often overshadowed by unrelated events (the first Infrastructure Week coincided with the congressional testimony of former FBI director James Comey)to the point of comedy, they did succeed in generating hope that upgrading the nation’s roads, transit systems, utility grids and broadband networks could be a rare area of bipartisan agreement in Washington, D.C., as was true in past administrations.
But the subject “just never seemed to be the priority it was indicated it would be,” Adler said. The Trump administration’s record on infrastructure is marked instead by over-hype and under-delivery. The $1 trillion (later $1.5 trillion) package boiled down to a series of White House budget sketches, proposing to use $200 billion as an incentive for private investors, states and localities to put up the remaining $800 billion. “We believe this will create a great return on taxpayer dollars,” stated a 2018 White House press release, which cited a $5.4 billion light-rail referendum in Nashville as the kind of locally-funded project the administration hoped to encourage. Nashville voters rejected the rail measure three months later. And the president’s building vows never came to pass.
“I think we’ll look back on these four years as a missed opportunity,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. “This administration has been a major letdown for nearly all state and local officials and advocates.”
One prominent deflated dream was the Gateway Project, the $30 billion plan to repair Amtrak and commuter rail links under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. It ranks high on the list of national infrastructure needs due to the region’s economic importance, and the Trump administration was initially supportive of it. But by late 2017, U.S. Department of Transportation officials stopped coming to project meetings, and in 2018, DOT Secretary Elaine Chao told members of Congress that Trump was trying to cancel funding. “The president is concerned about the viability of this project and the fact that New York and New Jersey have no skin in the game,”shesaid, a claim that ignored $6 billion already pledged by the states. Political animus between Trump and New York Senator Chuck Schumer was theapparent explanation for why the project remained in limbo.
At times, the administration seemed to punish cities that were trying to advance the kinds of investments that the White House had described. In 2018, the Federal Transit Administrationdelayed the release of $1.4 billion in capital investment grants for urban transit projects, according to Transportation for America, an advocacy group. The unexplained delays continued in 2019, adding millions of dollars in costs for project sponsors and causing some of them to withdraw their requests for funding or even cancel plans, a July 2020 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found.
“If you’re a smaller community that wants to get something done, but then a year passes without this grant you’re expecting, your costs exceed your resources,” said Beth Osbourne, the director of Transportation for America.
The fate of TIGER, a popular Obama-era grant program that funded road, bike, pedestrian, transit and maritime projects, was another example. From 2009 to 2016, the program distributed resources fairly evenly across transportation modes and population areas, with about two-thirds of the funding of going to non-road projects. That ratio flipped under Trump’s DOT, whichturned TIGER into the BUILD program and allocated the lion’s share of resources to roads in rural areas, a2019 Congressional Research Service report found. Congress eventually capped the amount of funding that can be awarded to rural areas “in response to the Administration’s tilt,” according to the CRS report.
“We just stopped applying, because we knew that urban areas weren’t being favored,” said Robin Hutcheson, the director of the Minneapolis department of public works.
For some sparsely inhabited parts of the country, the grants were a win. In 2020, the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin was awarded $5.8 million for a multi-purpose transportation center. The Maine Department of Transportation received $25 million to replace a deteriorating bridge in Kennebec County. Tens of millions of dollars went to more than a dozen highway-widening projects nationwide. “While there are still serious challenges facing rural infrastructure needs, much of the focus and DOT’s outreach the last four years was to rural communities, which was greatly appreciated,” said Andrew Walmsley, the director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau, an advocacy and lobbying group.
However, U.S. road conditions are generally worse in densely populated areas, due to heavier traffic patterns. Some viewed the withholding of these funds as an implicit form of the anti-urban politics that became more explicit during the racial justice protests of summer 2020. In October, USDOT said that it would use a Trump administration memo that cited New York City, Seattle and Portland as “anarchist jurisdictions” to decide how to allocate $10 million in coronavirus transit grants.
Those particular cities happen to be regarded as national leaders in car-free urban infrastructure, says Tamika Butler, a transportation consultant who specializes in racial justice and social equity. “The same cities that have drawn the ire of the feds are the ones that historically have been some of the most progressive and thoughtful in their transportation systems,” she said. “We can’t underestimate how the ego-driven, politically driven actions that relate to things like funding impacted cities that were ahead of the game.”
The Trump administration proved adept at demolition, scrapping environmental regulations, rolling back fuel efficiency standards, andwithdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. But the construction project for which this presidency is most likely to be remembered is the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Most of the roughly 360 miles of barrier completed so far replaces existing fencing, and the work has cost U.S. taxpayers about five times more per mile than in previous administrations, according to ProPublica. It, too, falls short of Trump’s campaign promises, including the notion thatMexico would pay for it.
With a few exceptions, Congress has also done little to tackle U.S. infrastructure needs. Transportation, emergency resilience and energy bills proposed by both Senate and House members have largely languished, including the $1.5 trillionMoving Forward Act, an infrastructure package passed by the House in July. A second pandemic relief package — which many expected to include funding and jobs for infrastructure — also has yet to pass.
Inaction by Congress predates the current president. But in 2020 its consequences were stark. In cities, public transit providers face an estimated $32 billion shortfall due to Covid-19 and are now slashing service, threatening the livelihoods of millions of essential workers. Inadequate broadband access in both rural and urban areas is having a grievous impact on students whose schooling has gone virtual: An estimated 15-16 million U.S. schoolchildrenlack either online connectivity or a digital device. The economic effects of Covid-19 have revealed ongoing struggles by many poor households to pay water bills and avoid shutoffs, issues that are often tied to aging systems.
“It’s been tragic, the lack of attention and investment,” said Hutcheson. “As if these issues are not important.”
Yet that absence of support to cities did produce a counter-effect. There has been a rallying cry for localities to take on greater leadership in policy and investment areas where the federal administration has declined to lead, interviewees said. While this had also begun before Trump took office, it was amplified in the last four years, they said.
For example, after the president announced plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, more than 400 U.S. mayors pledged to uphold it. Local transportation leaders have expanded bikesharing systems and other low-emissions modalities as part of an effort to reduce greenhouse gases, and mayors have formed collective purchasing agreements on behalf of their cities to pressure automakers to expand their electric vehicle offerings. Cities have passed a slew of major transit referenda driven by local tax dollars.
Relationships and networks between cities grew during the Trump era: Local officials have strengthened ties with one another and swapped ideas through issue-oriented coalitions likeC40 Cities and pre-existing professional networks like theU.S. Conference of Mayors. Where the federal government has not caught up to the current thinking in safe street design, cities have sometimes produced their own through organizations like theNational Association of City Transportation Officials, where Hutcheson is currently president of the executive board. “I think we did get more resolve from the last four years,” Hutcheson said. “We’ve led the state of the practice in cities.”
In a few instances, collective local actions pushed the federal government to adopt new standards, as in the case of red bus-only lanes that were approved last year for faster implementation by the Federal Highway Administration. In the past, cities tended to look to Washington, D.C., for guidance or matching dollars before making changes to streets and transit systems, said Tomer. “I think in this administration, cities don’t even know who to ask,” he said. Instead, they often asked each other.
The road ahead
Yet cities have limits — in terms of their authority, the funding they can access and the scale of impact they can achieve. Places like Austin that plan to self-fund large infrastructure projects will still depend on significant supplements from the federal government. Major upgrades that span multiple regions and states, such as the Gateway Project, require federal coordination. Shifting the national energy grid to renewable sources — which scientists agree is a critical step in meeting the country’s forsaken climate goals — cannot be done without a national standard bearer.
Indeed, a recent Brookings analysis of 100 cities that have pledged to cut carbon emissions found that half of them didn’t even set targets, let alone come close to meeting them. “There’s only so much localities can do on these issues without federal help,” said Tomer.
Now cities are in a tougher spot than ever. Brookings estimates that state and local governments will face a collective revenue shortfall of$155 billion in 2020 alone as a result of Covid-19, and a winter wave of the virus stands to bring new economic devastation and fresh anxiety about the future of cities. “There’s a feeling that the bloom is off the rose in terms of U.S. urbanism,” said Michael Berkowitz, the founder of Resilient Cities Catalyst, a consulting firm that creates urban resilience strategies.
Local leaders would beg to differ. “I’m bullish on the future of transit and cities,” said Randy Clarke, president and CEO of Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority. In the face of profound needs, he and others are optimistic that a Biden administration will be a partner and leader on infrastructure for rural and urban areas alike. Biden’s transition website outlines a plan to invest $1.3 trillion over the next decade in transportation, including $50 billion in highway repairs and zero-emissions public transit options for every city with at least 100,000 residents. The Gateway Project and high-speed rail lines in California and Texas are expected to receive support, and rail enthusiasts are anticipating that Biden’s election will translate into abrighter future for Amtrak’s passenger rail service nationwide.
“President-elect Biden plans to ‘Build Back Better,’ and that’s exactly what our Nation needs to move our infrastructure into the 21st century,” said Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio, chair of the U.S. House committee on transportation and infrastructure, in a statement after Biden’s victory. “I can’t wait to get started.”
Even without a supportive Congress, there is a lot the executive branch can do, Osbourne said, such as tightening auto efficiency regulations, upgrading road safety standards and revising grant programs. The Biden plan also explains how transportation is connected to racial justice and the climate crisis, which is encouraging to people who’d like to see transportation treated as less of a bucket to throw money into and more as a driver of social change.
“I am excited to have the potential to have folks where there’s an openness to hearing and listening, and believing in fact that transportation is not an extra or an add-on but something that’s essential and tied to the largest problems we face in society,” said Butler.
Some of the names on the Biden transition team — and mentioned as possible transportation secretaries — include city leaders like L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and L.A. Metro CEO Phillip A. Washington, as well as Democrat members of Congress who support progressive urban transportation policies, such as Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. With the pandemic and racial justice protests thrusting local elected officials into the national spotlight, “the country has been getting more familiar with their mayors but also those in other cities,” said Adler. He believes the Biden administration will seek to strengthen those ties.
What might this mean for the sense of purpose that the Trump administration brought to cities? Most local leaders said they are hopeful that the ethos of strong local leadership won’t stop under President-elect Biden, and that it would only be better resourced under an administration that is sympathetic to urban needs. The networks that cities have self-organized to drive change in the last four years “will only strengthen,” said Adler.
Some even see a glimmer of hope that the Biden era will mean more cooperation in Congress. “I’m optimistic that infrastructure is still that one bipartisan topic that is overwhelmingly supported by everyone,” said Clarke.
Butler is less confident. She points to how many Americans became complacent about fighting racism after Obama’s election. Cities could similarly lose ground on battles against climate change and systemic racism, if they feel that those problems are being addressed with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in office.
“I am afraid that there will be folks who are like, “Phew, let’s go back to when we didn’t have to think about this stuff,’” she said. “I hope we don’t have a complacency hangover again.”
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