Hey #TeamPete, here’s how you can advance sustainable and equitable transportation policy


Former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s appointment as Secretary of Transportation has brought some much-needed attention to this important department— especially from Pete’s former presidential campaign supporters. Here’s a primer for anyone new to transportation policy on how it works, how it’s broken, and what you can do to help fix it. 

Pete Buttigieg in February 2020. Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

There’s never been more attention on the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), with hashtags like #LearnAboutDOT, #HighwayHopes, and even #ChastenYourSeatbelts trending among supporters of Pete Buttigieg’s former presidential campaign. It’s good timing: 2021 is a big year for transportation, with the prospect of an infrastructure stimulus on the horizon and long-term surface transportation policy expiring in September. 

Here’s a primer on the state of transportation policy—and what you can do to fix it—for anybody interested in making a difference in this critical issue. 

What’s the problem with U.S. transportation?

Transportation is the bedrock of our nation’s economy and is critical to addressing our environmental, racial, and economic crises. Yet despite spending billions in federal tax dollars every year, our transportation system is broken: 

Climate change, racial and economic equity, safety, and infrastructure maintenance are interrelated transportation challenges—just like highways, public transit, biking, walking, and passenger rail are interrelated. But Congress and the federal government apply an outdated 1950s approach to transportation policy, pumping billions into a program designed to build the Interstate Highway System yet expecting different results.  

The billions we spend fail to address our most basic need: getting people where they need to go safely and efficiently. Spending more money won’t work without changing what we’re spending money on.

How can we change federal transportation policy? 

Every five to six years, Congress passes a long-term transportation law referred to as the “surface transportation authorization.” This law determines what we spend federal transportation funding on. The current authorization, the FAST Act, expires this September, giving Congress a rare opportunity to fundamentally reform transportation policy. 

We’re used to not expecting measurable results from the dollars we spend. It’s time to change that. At Transportation for America, we believe that we must orient federal transportation policy according to these three principles to connect our funding to the outcomes Americans desire:

  1. Prioritize maintenance before road expansion; 
  2. Design roads for safety over speed, and
  3. Measure transportation success by how well we connect people to jobs and essential services. 

Why these three principles? We can cut our maintenance backlog in half by simply dedicating formula highway funds to maintenance—finally “fixing our crumbling roads and bridges,” as politicians love to cry. By designing roads for safer speeds, we can save thousands of lives and make it easier to bike, walk, and ride transit. And by measuring the success of our investments by how well they connect people to the things they need—not how fast cars can drive, which is how we currently measure “success”—we can prioritize investments that improve those connections, regardless of mode. (For a deeper dive on our principles, check out this primer.

Last summer, the House of Representatives passed a proposal that makes progress on many of our recommendations. This bill—the INVEST Act—can serve as a template for reauthorization proposals this year. 

What about an infrastructure stimulus? 

Our three principles can apply to any federal funding for transportation, including an infrastructure stimulus. If the conversation around a stimulus focuses on how much we’re spending and not what we’re spending it on, it won’t succeed at rebuilding our economy—something we discovered in our analysis of the 2009 Recovery Act. 

It’s critical that any COVID-19 stimulus includes at least $39.3 billion in emergency relief for struggling public transit systems. This funding will prevent cuts to transit service through the end of 2023. 

Public transit’s revenue has been decimated by the pandemic, yet millions of riders continue to rely on transit to reach jobs, healthcare, groceries, and other vital resources. Without continued emergency support, transit will not be able to connect riders—particularly low-income riders and people of color—with the places they need. 

What can Secretary Buttigieg do? 

Without changing federal transportation policy, USDOT doesn’t have much power to fundamentally change our transportation system. But there are some reforms Secretary Buttigieg can make without an act of Congress, including:

  • working with President Biden to reinstate the greenhouse gas performance measure for transportation (overturned by the Trump administration); 
  • streamlining and releasing transit construction grants
  • encouraging safer roadway design standards;
  • prohibiting states from setting regressive safety goals, like planning for more road deaths than actually occured in the year prior; 
  • measuring induced demand
  • and making multimodal access data available to local planners. 

You can read more of these recommendations—and our reasoning behind them—in our memo to the Biden administration. 

What can I do to help? 

In the short term, supporting emergency relief for public transit is critical. Congress needs to pass at least $39 billion to prevent transit cuts through the end of 2023. Please call, email and tweet your Congressional delegation to preserve the $30 billion in emergency relief the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee included in their COVID-19 relief package, and advocate for passing an additional $9.3 billion in subsequent legislation.  

In the long-term, you can help Congress pass a better transportation authorization. Members of Congress rarely hear from constituents about transportation policy (which is part of the reason why members of Congress bipartisanly agree to maintain the broken status quo)—so you calling, emailing, and tweeting at your representatives goes a long way. 

As Congressional committees start to draft proposals to reauthorize transportation policy, we need grassroots advocates ready to fight for fundamental reform. Subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter to stay tuned for upcoming actions on transportation policy. (And follow us on Twitter.)

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