Biden infrastructure plan and ‘fix it right’

There’s a lot to like about this proposal

THE BIDEN INFRASTRUCTURE initiative, branded as The American Jobs Plan, may be the most important transportation investment program since the Eisenhower Interstate Highway Act.  The Interstate Highway Act kicked off a decades-long era of massive federal investment in a national highway and bridge program, designed to respond to the post-World War II impulse to leave cities for a suburban ideal that required more auto mobility.

From the mid-1950s through to this century, highways and aviation became the primary recipients of federal largesse and private sector investment, while investments in transit and rail lagged and other sustainable modes (cycling and walking) were demeaned and diminished by the federal mischaracterization that they were “enhancements” rather than necessities.

The investment priorities of the Eisenhower era have been difficult to shake away, but the Biden plan appears to be the first meaningful effort to do that. It does not ignore the need to invest in highways and bridges; to the contrary, the bill proposes $115 billion to undertake worthy road projects.  What makes the Biden bill so potentially groundbreaking is not its dimensional aspects (it seems somewhat modestly funded to me) but its directional change.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  Rather than talk about highway investment in the tiresome anti-growth language of “fix it first,” it rebrands the effort as “fix it right.”  This is more than semantics; it takes a clever conservative soundbite and transforms it into something fundamentally different – achieving state of good repair is about more than filling potholes or reconstructing deteriorated bridges.  It is also about redesigning highways to respond to an era where modal connectivity is increasingly important and highway reconstruction and replacement projects must be undertaken to correct past mistakes.

The best example of what I’m talking about is the reconstruction of the elevated Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston.  Simply “fixing it first” no longer cuts it.  Rather, the Biden plan directs that state’s “fix it right,” and fixing it right means two primary things: replacing the elevated viaduct with an at-grade highway and building a vibrant multi-modal connection at West Station. That’s what “fixing it right” means, and it ought to be a signal to MassDOT officials that the federal rules are about to change in ways that require them to adopt the affordable, achievable at-grade solution promoted by the city of Boston, A Better City, and many other advocates.

There’s a lot more to like with regard to highway and road funding, including the plan’s specific focus on safety and a Complete Streets approach. We can’t rebuild our cities without redesigning and reimagining the streetscape as something other than places to drive and park cars. A return of the public realm to the people who inhabit it, and the small businesses who depend on it, is an essential component of emerging stronger from the pandemic, and this plan appears to both understand that and fund it.

The Biden plan is a bit disappointing on transit funding — $85 billion overall – but again it is directionally on target.  That sum may sound like a lot of money, but in the context of a national transit investment effort spread out over eight years, it is probably not nearly enough to accomplish everything that must be done.

I’m inclined not to complain about the funding but rather to applaud the redirection inherent in the plan. The focus on helping transit agencies modernize equipment and systems will provide much-needed support for projects that will improve the rider experience, attracting riders to revitalized public transportation networks that offer reliability and connectivity.  When the Biden plan refers to expanding transit systems, I take it to mean providing that critical connectivity that can make transit so powerfully efficient as a way to reach your daily destinations. Locally, this is exactly what projects like the Red-Blue Connector would do, exactly what connecting the Blue Line to Lynn would do.

There’s a lot more to like in this bill.  For example, it provides substantial funding for electrification of agency fleets, providing more than mere hope that critical initiatives like replacing the MBTA’s antiquated diesel locomotives with electric multiple units can finally be achieved on a reasonable schedule. The Biden plan, if enacted into law, removes both funding and electric power capacity uncertainty.

The plan’s focus on electric buses is in line with the move away from fossil fuels, but I caution that battery electric buses remain unreliable in cold weather conditions and much needs to be done by way of research and development to achieve the kind of reliability a highly functioning system would demand.

Finally, the plan provides $20 billion targeted toward redressing historic inequities that have remained unaddressed since the construction of the Interstate Highway system.  They are littered across the nation, urban interstates that were designed, with unambiguous racist intent, to separate or destroy established low-income communities and neighborhoods of color.

Almost everywhere you go – Syracuse, New York (I/81), Dallas (I/35E), New Orleans (I/10), Nashville (I/40), Atlanta, (I/75 & 85), St. Paul (I/94), Orlando (I/4) – they remain as ugly barriers, diminishing quality of life and depressing economic growth. Repairing these injustices is long overdue, and with targeted investments that arise from a collaborative effort with local communities, the Biden plan will begin to make modest but important amends for the ravages of mid-20th Century highway construction.

The Biden plan should not be considered as a stand-alone bill.  It is inextricably linked to the reauthorization of the federal surface transportation act (the FAST Act), which will be considered by Congress later this year.  Several provisions of the FAST Act need to be revised and reformed for the full effect of the Biden plan to work.  One example: federal funding support for worthy transit projects must be raised from the current 50/50 split to the 80/20 split that is in place for highways.

And the Federal Transit Administration needs to be directed to revise its approach to transit capital projects, moving away from the artificial constraints of cost-benefit analyses that fail to understand what true “benefits” are in the context of projects that open up access to opportunity for thousands of people. Thus, while the Biden plan is a critical step forward, the reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Act with critical reforms is an essential component of a complete redirection of federal transportation investment policy.

Meet the Author

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan is a groundbreaking step in a new direction.  If enacted into law, it will pave the pathway (pun intended) for a more sustainable, equitable future, helping build a national transportation policy that lifts all boats by providing both the funding and the direction America needs as we remake our nation in the 21st Century.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation who serves on the board of TransitMatters.