Big promises on transit from President-Elect Biden

President-Elect Joe Biden has often been called “Amtrak Joe” for his strong support of the rail service he personally rode from his home in Delaware to Washington DC as a US Senator.

Public transit advocates have good reason to be optimistic about how public transit will fare under President-Elect Joe Biden. While getting legislation through the Senate will be challenging, he has bold goals for improving transit.

President-Elect Biden’s Big Commitments

In the transition team’s newly published Build Back Better website, Biden commits to:

Provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options through flexible federal investments with strong labor protections that create good, union jobs and meet the needs of these cities — ranging from light rail networks to improving existing transit and bus lines to installing infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

The Biden-Harris Transition Team’s Build Back Better website

Analysis of the plan by The Drive points out that “There are an estimated 317 U.S. cities to which this [transit] promise would be applicable.” … “But it’s important to note that this is simply a plan—and nothing gets put in place without approval from the House and Senate. Whether or not Americans will reap the rewards is still to be seen.”

The transition team has four main priorities, one of which is tackling climate change. Transit logically falls within this category, along with infrastructure, the auto industry, housing, innovation, and more:

At this moment of profound crisis, we have the opportunity to build a more resilient, sustainable economy — one that will put the United States on an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050. Biden is working to seize that opportunity and, in the process, create millions of good-paying jobs….

The Biden-Harris Transition Team’s Build Back Better website
Then-Vice President Joe Biden exits after touring a new DDOT bus that he helped provide much-needed funding in September 2015.

During the campaign, he also pledged bold action on transit and rail in his platform, “THE BIDEN PLAN TO BUILD A MODERN, SUSTAINABLE INFRASTRUCTURE AND AN EQUITABLE CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE.”

“He will launch a national effort aimed at creating the jobs we need to build a modern, sustainable infrastructure now and deliver an equitable clean energy future…. Biden will make a $2 trillion accelerated investment, with a plan to deploy those resources over his first term, setting us on an irreversible course to meet the ambitious climate progress that science demands. . . .

Revolutionizing municipal transit networks. Most Americans do not have access to high-quality and zero-emissions options for affordable, reliable public transportation; and where transit exists, it’s often in need of repair. As a result, workers and families rely on cars and trucks, which can be a big financial burden and clog roadways. Biden will aim to provide all Americans in municipalities of more than 100,000 people with quality public transportation by 2030. He will allocate flexible federal investments with strong labor protections to help cities and towns install light rail networks and improve existing transit and bus lines. He’ll also help them invest in infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and riders of e-scooters and other micro-mobility vehicles and integrate technologies like machine-learning optimized traffic lights. And, Biden will work to make sure that new, fast-growing areas are designed and built with clean and resilient public transit in mind. Specifically, he will create a new program that gives rapidly expanding communities the resources to build in public transit options from the start….

Sparking the second great railroad revolution. Biden will make sure that America has the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world — for both passengers and freight. His rail revolution will reduce pollution, connect workers to good union jobs, slash commute times, and spur investment in communities that will now be better linked to major metropolitan areas. To speed that work, Biden will tap existing federal grant and loan programs at the U.S. Department of Transportation, and improve and streamline the loan process. In addition, Biden will work with Amtrak and private freight rail companies to further electrify the rail system, reducing diesel fuel emissions.

The campaign platform

Revitalizing communities in every corner of the country so that no one is left behind or cut off from economic opportunities. Biden’s plan will ensure that our infrastructure investments work to address disparities – often along lines of race and class – in access to clean air, clean water, reliable and sustainable transportation. . . .

Set a goal that all new American-built buses be zero-emissions by 2030, which will create significant demand for the manufacturing of new, clean American-built buses utilizing American-manufactured inputs – and accelerate the progress by converting all 500,000 school buses in our country — including diesel — to zero emissions. Biden will ensure that the existing — and future — workforce is trained and able to operate and maintain this 21st century infrastructure.

 And, he’ll incentivize smart regional planning that connects housing, transit, and jobs, improving quality of life by cutting commute times, reducing the distance between living and leisure areas, and mitigating climate change.

Setting a goal that disadvantaged communities receive 40% of overall benefits of spending in the areas of clean energy and energy efficiency deployment; clean transit and transportation; affordable and sustainable housing; training and workforce development ….. 

The campaign platform

Early actions provide signs of hope

Early actions provide signs of hope too. The head of LA’s transit agency will head the transition on transportation, “advising Biden on the direction of federal transportation policy and agencies, including Amtrak and the U.S. Department of Transportation.” Phil Washington led LA Metro through the “one of the country’s most ambitious rail building booms, with five projects currently under construction and nearly a dozen other rail and bus projects slated.” That investment was made possible through a voter-approved sales tax increase in 2016, “one of the largest local transportation funding efforts in American history.”

For Secretary of Transportation, Biden is reportedly considering:

  • LA Mayor Eric Garcetti – who championed major transit expansion and has backed free transit for LA
  • Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
  • Rep Earl Blumenauer of Oregon – longtime bicycle and transit leader
  • Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America
  • Sarah Feinberg, interim president of the NYC Transit Authority, former head of Federal Railroad Admin
  • John Pocari, former US DOT deputy secretary

Statements from Others

The American Public Transportation Association put out a statement “on behalf of its 1,500 members and tens of millions of public transit riders,” congratulating the President-Elect, noting:

President-Elect Biden has been a tireless champion for public transit and passenger rail over his many years of public service, and we look forward to working with his Administration on numerous issues of importance to millions of Americans who rely on bus and rail to get to work, to school, to family, and across this great nation.”

American Public Transportation Association statement Nov 7, 2020

Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) issued a statement, quoted in Mass Transit Magazine:

The President-elect has made it clear he is ready to work with Congress to deliver results for all Americans with bold investments in infrastructure that help everyone, from large metro areas dealing with unreliable transit and soon to be jam-packed highways, to rural communities that suffer from bridges in poor condition and deteriorating roads. And of course, ‘Amtrak Joe’ and I share the goals of a robust national rail network and turning the transportation sector—the number one contributor to carbon pollution in the U.S.—into one that is clean, efficient, reliable and resilient to extreme weather events…. I can’t wait to get started.” 

Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR)

“Throughout these politically divisive times and a bruising campaign, Biden and Harris have consistently stood for essential workers, public transit and working families every step of the way.”

The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU)