Obama Administration Official Discusses Biden Transportation Policy With AASHTO

John Porcari, former U.S. deputy secretary of transportation with the Obama administration, spoke to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) November 12, offering a glimpse into President-elect Joe Biden’s transportation priorities. Porcari, a leading voice in the development of the Biden administration’s transportation policy, spoke on potential emphases of Biden’s transportation team and ways state departments of transportation may work alongside the new administration.

Porcari opened by saying that, oftentimes, a federalist, Washington, D.C.-centric view of transportation policy and funding is from the top down.

“You all know the reality is the opposite,” Porcari told attendees of the AASHTO virtual annual meeting. “It’s bottom-up, not top-down. The choices in the transportation system can and should and are made at the local level. Those priorities, those choices are different between Maine and Montana, between Washington and Wyoming, as you would expect.

“That perspective is important, because I think it underpins what you’re likely to see in a transportation philosophy and transportation program,” he added.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Porcari spoke of the “seams” between the various modes of transportation—roads, railways, air and waterways. Oftentimes, goods transported about the country must move between those modes of transportation.

“We haven’t been terribly good at those seams within the system, and that’s one place where there’s broad agreement on the policy side that relatively modest investments can pay off big for the economy,” Porcari said.

He pointed to transportation grant programs like INFRA (Infrastructure For Rebuilding America), TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) and BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) as models for the future. All have dedicated significant resources to port projects around the country.

Porcari then described the path forward as a two-step process.

“First is to get the transportation system and the economy in general back on its feet,” he said. “Some of the public health imperatives like mask-wearing throughout the transportation system, rebuilding public confidence through health measures throughout the transportation system, in particular transit and aviation, are going to be a key early effort and one that you will see some movement on very quickly.”

The second step, Porcari said, will be some form of stimulus, “not just to rebuild the economy but to start a different direction.”

Porcari pointed to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as a potential model for what’s to come with the Biden administration. Interestingly, Porcari drew a distinction between shovel-ready projects and shovel-worthy projects. He encouraged state departments of transportation to begin assessing their projects and processes now in order to act as the Biden administration’s transportation program is enacted.

“Every state DOTD should really be thinking of their internal checklists for any kind of stimulus or reauthorization,” Porcari said. “Your internal checklists should be things like [these]: Have you tuned up the procurement program to be faster and more efficient? Can you do personal notices to proceed to get projects out the door more quickly? Have you made the rounds in your state in a listening tour to actually put together that mix of projects, high end and low end, that can get out the door fairly quickly and be transformative in the long term? Have you had the conversations with your elected officials, the legislature, for example, to have a program ready?

“Those are checklist items that you can actually go through now to be ready for what’s next,” he added.

Porcari then mentioned some elements likely to be part of the Biden administration’s transportation program. He first mentioned continuing process improvements made in the recent past. Resiliency will also be a key concern for the  program, he said.

“That will be a critical part of a program, and you can expect it to basically trickle through the federal program across the board,” he said.

Safety will also be a key concern, Porcari said, calling it a “vision zero goal.” Porcari also mentioned a future national framework for autonomous vehicles.

“In general, creating the space for innovation and technological change is going to be an underlying principle, something that will be infused throughout the program and, I think, to the benefit of the state DOTs,” Porcari said.

Balance within systems and inner city passenger rail services are two other points of focus Porcari mentioned. Doing things in an equitable way will also be a priority.

Projects that have two and three multiplying benefits will be prioritized, he said.

Porcari closed by mentioning changing attitudes toward public rights of way as a key concern, shifting from an ownership mentality of rights of way to stewardship.

One question raised during the session was what the Biden administration’s priorities for its first 100 days will be and whether an infrastructure bill will be part of that. Porcari said the short answer is yes.

“It’s no secret to anybody that President-elect Biden has long been an advocate for infrastructure,” Porcari said. “He feels it in his bones.”

That was shown in Biden’s work with the planning and implementation of the Recovery Act, Porcari said. Partnering and collaboration will be a must, Porcari said, as will the recognition that some parts of the country and some communities have been left behind with regard to infrastructure investment.

“I’m actually optimistic about it,” he said. “The devil is always in the details, but the timing is right too. Local jurisdictions throughout the country, through self-help initiatives and raising their own revenues, put their money where their mouth is. The federal government has been a lagger in this. I think we all recognize it, but we also need to make the case that that’s the reality.”