One year in, how is the Biden team really doing on transportation?

President Biden wears a mask as he signs executive orders
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

A year in, the Biden administration helped pass historic investments in infrastructure and spoke out about safety, repair, and equity, but a lot of potential improvements have been left on the table.  Congress passes the laws but the administration has to implement them. Here’s our update on their progress and the opportunities still left on the table for them to advance their stated goals. 

promo graphic for a guide to the IIJA

This post is part of a series we are producing at T4America to explain the new $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which now governs all federal transportation policy and funding through 2026. What do you need to know about the new infrastructure law? We know that federal transportation policy can be intimidating and confusing. Our hub for this law will guide you through it, from the basics all the way to more complex details.

We recapped the administration’s progress after Biden’s first 100 days and again six months in. The biggest change since last July was the completion of the new infrastructure law. But as noted below, that’s really only the beginning of the work for the administration. 

The bottom line: A full year into the administration, we are still waiting for a lot of action on the various priorities we produced a year ago as they were taking office. Any new progress on our wish list since that six-month review has been meager, at best. This lack of progress makes the next year even more challenging. The massive, new infrastructure bill is missing the updates and reforms needed to promote the administration’s priorities while creating a mammoth workload for USDOT. The administration needs to make major progress soon if they want to impact how the IIJA’s funds—already being committed by state DOTs!—are spent.

Here’s what you need to know:

The good: Vocal support for safety, repair, and climate

Encouraging states to make smart investments

Shortly after the passage of the infrastructure bill, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released a memo urging states to prioritize federal funds for repair projects and simplify the review process for carbon-cutting safety and multimodal projects like bike lanes and rapid transit lanes. While it isn’t binding (states retain all the flexibility in the world to use federal dollars for expansion instead of repair), we were encouraged to see the administration swiftly and directly speak out about the nation’s repair needs. 

Unfortunately, several states and members of Congress have criticized this and even claimed it has some binding authority. We wish! It is possible this backlash comes from ignorance of the program overall and the fact that DOTs retain full discretion over their funding. It is also possible that they are hoping to discourage the administration from taking more meaningful steps. If the administration cowers in the face of this somewhat performative backlash from DOTs—especially after they used “crumbling roads and bridges” as a central justification for the infrastructure bill’s high price tag—progress will halt with this memo.

94 percent of traffic crashes are NOT caused by human error

In January, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) took the misleading and oft-cited statistic that “94 percent of crashes are caused by human error” off of their website. Some examples of the types of “human error” this statistic refers to: 

  • A pedestrian without access to a crosswalk for a mile in either direction attempts to cross the street and is hit by a driver going the speed limit, which happens to be too fast to yield.
  • A driver is traveling down a wide open road at the 60 mph speed limit. The speed limit changes from 60 mph to 30 mph, but the driver doesn’t see the sign and no design changes signal a need to slow down. The driver continues traveling at 60 mph.
  • A driver in a large SUV turns right on a curved slip lane, indicating that they need not slow down on the turn. At that speed, there is no time to react to a pedestrian in the marked crosswalk. The high front end of their vehicle obscures their view of the road, and they collide with a five-foot-tall pedestrian that has just begun to cross the street.

These are all failures of design, not evidence of human errors.

This false statistic has misdirected attention away from the dangerous design of roadways, which fails to include adequate space for pedestrians and cyclists and makes safe driving unintuitive. While this statistic has been around so long and has been so frequently cited by transportation agencies, removing it from federal materials will help bring the focus back to the dangerous design decisions that often put nondrivers in harm’s way.

The new USDOT safety strategy calls out dangerous design and unsafe speeds

In January the USDOT released a new road safety strategy which included a full section on the importance of street design and a second section on the role it plays in unsafe speeds and safety for the very first time. The strategy also encouraged revisiting speed limits and our broken process for setting them, including moving away from the 85th percentile rule. They go further to state that USDOT is considering prohibiting state DOTs and MPOs from setting performance targets to do worse (e.g., increase fatalities), which would be welcome news.

Like the FHWA memo, this strategy cannot deliver on-the-ground changes by itself. Revising and reframing the handbook of engineering standards (the MUTCD), which engineers rely on to design roads, would be a more effective way to bring about safe street designs. But as we said in our statement in January, this strategy can work well if paired with that sort of administrative action.

The incomplete: Less talk, more action

However encouraging these moves above are, federal strategies and memos have no real bearing on state decision-making. Regardless of what the USDOT advises, states can take full advantage of the flexibility in the infrastructure bill to spend their new dollars however they would like to. 

But FHWA hasn’t added teeth to this request. Though their memo referenced above encourages states to invest in repair first, FHWA also recently released guidance clearly letting states know they can use bridge repair dollars to construct new bridges, even if this construction has nothing to do with repair needs. This is an example of the roadblocks the administration will face now because of policy changes they failed to negotiate for the infrastructure bill, and it’s all the more reason that the administration must take action now to meet their goals. The law alone cannot help them make repair a priority, because it specifically allowed states to ignore repair needs.

The administration continues to brag about the IIJA’s exciting-but-overmatched new programs focused on improving safety, reducing emissions, advancing equity and improving state of repair. But the funding for many of these new programs is not yet out the door because Congress has not approved a budget for the next year. This means that all brand new programs are in limbo and existing programs’ funding levels are currently frozen at FAST Act levels. So programs like the new Carbon Reduction program or increased funding for transit capital grants that the administration has been bragging about can’t go forward. The administration needs to put their political heft into pushing Congress forward on a budget.

The opportunity: Actions the administration can take right now

Our list of specific actions are listed in the table below, tracking the progress the Biden administration has made since taking office. Since our last update, not much has changed (and there’s a notable lack of progress on value of time guidance and ensuring models account for induced demand, both of which we highlighted in our six-month update). We have also added two high priority actions that we will track going forward.

Issue area Department Status Detail Action
Access to federal funds USDOT Simplify applications for discretionary grant programs (like the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program) by creating an online application and benefit-cost analysis (BCA) process so that small, rural and limited-capacity agencies can more easily access federal funds.
Climate change USDOT In progress Started rulemaking process We only measure what we treasure. Re-establish the greenhouse gas (GHG) performance measure for transportation abandoned by the last administration, follow this up with annual state GHG rankings, and provide guidance for projecting GHG emissions at the project level.
Climate change USDOT Done Repeal the June 29, 2018, Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Dear Colleague to public transit agencies regarding the Capital Investment Grant program, specifically the treatment of federal loans as not part of the local match, inclusion of a geographic diversity factor in grant awards, and encouraging a low federal cost share.
Climate change USDOT Allow rural transit systems to receive funding from the Low and No Emission bus program.
Equity USDOT Identify infrastructure that creates barriers to mobility (such as highways or rail beds that divide a community). Then prioritize resources to address those barriers and the disparities they create (e.g., by removing infrastructure barriers or creating new connectivity).
Passenger rail White House, USDOT The board is functionally empty, with all members serving on expired terms and no-showing for meetings. Appoint new members to the Amtrak Board of Directors and assess the balance of the board with respect to support for and experience with vital long distance, state-supported, and Northeast Corridor routes, as well as civic and elected leaders from local communities actually served by the existing network.
Safety USDOT Limited progress Called out in Roadway Strategy release, but they did not include or mention consideration of the visibility issues. Revise the New Car Assessment Program to consider and prioritize the risk that increasingly larger automobile designs pose to pedestrians and cyclists and the driver’s ability to see pedestrians (particularly children and people using wheelchairs and other assistive devices).
Safety USDOT Limited progress Comments reopened and then closed in May 2021. Limited revisions underway

Admin not rewriting or reframing the guide, per their Roadway Strategy release.

Reopen the comment period on the handbook of street engineering standards (the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices or MUTCD) used by transportation agencies to design streets, and reframe and rewrite it to remove standards and guidance that lead to streets that are hostile to or dangerous for those outside of a vehicle.
Technical guidance White House, HUD, USDOT, GSA Re-activate the Location Affordability Portal created by DOT and HUD and establish a location efficiency and equitable development scoring criteria to be applied to decisions involving location of new federal facilities, particularly those that serve the public. Re-activate the Location Affordability Portal created by DOT and HUD and establish a location efficiency and equitable development scoring criteria to be applied to decisions involving location of new federal facilities, particularly those that serve the public.
Ensure more accurate traffic and emissions modeling
USDOT Require the measurement of induced demand and a review of the accuracy of current travel demand models by comparing past projections with actual outcomes, reporting their findings, and updating the models when there are discrepancies.
Replace value of time guidance with more equitable, multimodal approach
USDOT Help states and metro areas accurately calculate the benefit of their projects by updating the value of time guidance and its focus on vehicle speed with consideration of actual projected time savings for all people, whether they travel by car or use other modes of travel.

In addition to the actions we called for above, there are additional steps the Biden administration can take now to help guide the implementation process:

Administer clear and firm guidance and discretionary funding opportunities that aligns with their goals 

The Biden team can deliver guidance and craft discretionary grant funding notices that significantly shape the impact of this bill. They should do all they can to ensure states don’t abuse their flexibility in a way that ignores rising crash rates, increases the repair backlog, and over-invests in projects that are inequitable or unsustainable, like wide roads and highways with limited crossings that can make local travel dangerous for those outside of a car. 

FHWA has issued a memo calling for states to invest in repair projects and lowering the impact of transportation projects on the communities adjacent and the environment, and we hope states will follow that guidance, in spite of the fact that it isn’t a directive.. But that’s really the bare minimum. They can send a clear message to other applicants by awarding competitive grants only to projects that strongly align with their repair, safety, equity, and climate goals, and send powerful messages by rewarding the states that are spending their formula dollars in productive ways toward those same goals.

Hire staff to support the implementation process 

Though the infrastructure bill allotted a lot of money for capital work, it will require a major investment in human capital, especially the new passenger rail program. For example, the Biden team will need to support opportunities to help solve staffing issues at the local and state levels, including the bus operator shortage and other workforce issues. They will also need to help states, most of which do have experienced staff for developing and building rail projects, stand up these new programs.

While the infrastructure law contains a generational investment in passenger rail, that potential will be squandered without sufficient staff in place to create and implement these new programs. Hiring in the federal government takes time, while these programs are expected to be running very soon. Additionally, USDOT nominees still haven’t been confirmed (some still haven’t been nominated), and the Amtrak board is functionally empty with all members serving expired terms. The board is in urgent and immediate need of new appointments, particularly those that can provide perspective outside of the Northeast Corridor.  

Reevaluate the metrics and definitions that will help determine how goals are reached 

The administration should audit and quantifiably measure how the nation is making progress on infrastructure goals. But the metrics and models that we use matter. States rely on flawed and outdated models to determine the need or effectiveness of projects. The Biden administration can and should deliver guidance on measuring time savings benefits, emissions reductions, and transit access to ensure that projects meant to achieve these goals are set up to succeed. Data on state DOT projects should also be more readily available to the public (and more current), so that taxpayers can better hold their local leaders accountable.

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