Reflections on the Path Forward
As we are about to embark on the 9th annual Week to Champion America's Infrastructure that will take place on May 10-14, this is an ideal time to reflect on where we've been and what the future may have in store for transportation.
Even before the pandemic upended our lives and economy, transportation was going through a time of change. Budget challenges at all levels of government had policymakers re-evaluating how best to move people and goods in the most efficient, economical and safe manner. Additionally, there have been questions about whether upgrades and modernization of roads and highways were the way forward or was it expanding other transportation alternatives including transit and intercity rail. The advancement of autonomous vehicles and the growth of the ride-sharing economy have also added to these calculations.
On the aviation front, modernization efforts at the nation’s airports were already struggling when the pandemic halted business and leisure travel. This situation only worsened during the pandemic as business and personal travel cratered. According the Airports Council International – North America, the backlog of important infrastructure projects is projected to be $115 billion with additional tens of billions of dollars in other projects that have been delayed or cancelled due to the pandemic and resulting economic impacts. For years, policymakers have struggled to modernize the passenger facility charge (PFC) that would allow airports to fund important projects to upgrade aging facilities and expand new terminals. While passenger levels have slowly crept up over the past several months, it’s not expected that travel will match pre-pandemic levels for another couple of years and that means revenue losses will continue and key airport infrastructure projects will languish.
What does all of this mean for our post-COVID future? Mounting evidence has indicated that the pandemic has had and will continue to have a significant impact on how people and goods move. The pandemic altered the workforce in ways that could profoundly change how our transportation system moves forward. Will business and leisure travelers again take to the skies in great numbers? Will the shift to remote and work from home continue well past widespread vaccination? Will commuters shun public transportation and rely upon single occupant vehicles to commute? Will this lead to a traffic congestion ‘pandemic’? Congestion levels in many metro areas were already intolerable before the pandemic but could become even worse as commuters could decide to shirk public transportation and opt for a single occupant vehicle.
The diminished traffic volumes that reduced revenue going into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) have slowly rebounded from a deep dive earlier in 2020, but it’s uncertain for what that may mean for long-term HTF stability. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that to fund another five year surface transportation bill at current funding levels will require an additional $75 billion and to fund a six year bill it would require an additional $97 billion. With the Biden Administration pledging not to raise taxes on those earning less than $400,00 annually, the source of this additional long-term sustainable revenue is an open question. The same goes with modernizing the PFC which has languished at levels set nearly twenty years ago.
It is important to note that there is some good news! We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity for policymakers to address the infrastructure challenges that have plagued our nation for decades. The funding proposed in the Biden Administration’s $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan would significantly improve the nation’s transportation systems, and is intended to be in addition to what would be provided in a surface transportation reauthorization bill. Senate Republicans have also put forth a $568 billion proposal that they intend to be a starting point for bi-partisan negotiations and the bi-partisan Problem Solvers Caucus has unveiled a white paper that outlines areas where Republicans and Democrats could find consensus.
So as America and the world begins to emerge from the worst pandemic in 100 years, let’s put aside our differences. Let’s all work together – Republicans, Democrats and Independents – to forge a new path forward to build back our economy and improve the quality of life for all Americans.