With transportation’s future unclear, some question spending

Experts say highway bills should take into account the long-term impact of COVID-19 on transit

North Capitol Street and the New York Avenue overpass is pictured during the coronavirus pandemic on April 3, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
North Capitol Street and the New York Avenue overpass is pictured during the coronavirus pandemic on April 3, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 11, 2020 at 7:00am

Save for an initial investment of $83.1 billion for pandemic-strapped state and local transportation departments, the $494 billion House highway bill introduced last week didn’t specifically address how the coronavirus might spark long-term changes in the way Americans use transportation.

Analysts wonder if that’s a mistake. 

They express the same concern about the Senate's bill, approved in July by the Environment and Public Works Committee.

“My fear is if we barrel ahead blindly, we’re going to have this huge mismatch,” said Marc Scribner, senior transportation analyst with the libertarian Reason Foundation.

He said stay-at-home orders have made employers reexamine their willingness to allow workers to telecommute. Others are wary of the close human contact inherent in public transit in a world with heightened awareness of disease transmission. It’s too soon to say if these changes will be temporary or transformative. 

Long before the virus was recognized, the House and Senate committees began drafting their respective highway bills, which will replace the current law set to expire Sept. 30. But experts say that shouldn’t stop them from taking into account the long-term impact COVID-19 will have on how Americans live their lives.

“To say we need to be spending X amount on highways across the nation and X amount in every state and a certain portion of that on bike paths and walking paths and sidewalks and transit — it just to me seems a bit irrational, and it seems especially ill-suited to the current environment,” said David Ditch, a research associate at the conservative Heritage Institute. 

He said he’s particularly mystified by the $105 billion investment in transit in the House bill. That legislation also includes $60 billion for rail including Amtrak.

Demand

Transit demand has dropped off a cliff since the beginning of the pandemic. Amtrak, which saw a 95 percent systemwide dropoff beginning in early March, is projecting a 50 percent reduction in systemwide revenue in fiscal 2021.

And it’s unclear when demand will return, Ditch said. 

“You’re talking about wanting to increase the prevalence of people crowding together in enclosed areas, and these funds will be rolling out starting in October, which is the start of cold and flu season,” he said. “Until we have COVID more under control than we do now, that seems very ill-advised.”

Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, a nonprofit focused on smart growth, said despite the pandemic, the demand for transit will return. It’s already needed by many of the essential working-class employees stocking grocery stores and working in hospitals, she said.

“I don’t think transit is in quite the trouble others do,” she said, noting that Congress recently backed $25 billion in aid to transit as part of its pandemic response. “There’s this attitude that people will get in public pools and go to beaches, but not a bus.”

Ditch said it’s too soon to make such a sweeping commitment. He said he supports a one- or two- year extension until the pandemic has passed, followed by a more permanent bill.

“Right now we’re in such a state of incredible flux that we don’t know what things are going to be like three months from now, let alone five years from now,” he said. “So something shorter and smaller is far preferable to something huge and longer-term.”

Others argue an infrastructure bill might be just the medicine that the country needs to help the economy recover. 

Impact

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., President Donald Trump, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., have all touted infrastructure as a means to help rejuvenate an economy crippled by the virus. DeFazio argued in April that “the best way to restart our economy and put workers first is with a massive investment in the kind of infrastructure that will help future generations succeed."

Ditch said the economic impact of infrastructure has been exaggerated.

He cites research by former colleague James Sherk that found the shovel-ready projects touted by President Barack Obama during the 2009 economic stimulus package “took years to come online.”

And the projects, he said, didn’t create enough new jobs to justify the billions spent.

“We tried that 10 years ago,” he said. “It didn’t happen then and quite frankly I can’t see why it would happen now.”

Other studies have reached different conclusions.

A 2017 study published by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that $1 trillion in infrastructure investment could create 11 million jobs over the next decade. A 2014 study by Brookings also made the case for infrastructure as a key source of economic growth.

Jeff Davis, senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, said it’s far too early to tell if the commuting transformation wrought by the pandemic will stick.

In China, he said, reports are that auto traffic has increased over a year ago, presumably because of the reluctance to take mass transit.

“I don’t know how long either trend will last, and I’m pretty sure no one else does, either,” he said.

Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said travel, including transit, is bound to return in some form. 

But he agrees the pandemic may help spur a fundamental shift in daily travel habits.

“What we are seeing in the marketplace is different than what it was four months ago and certainly this time last year,” Tomer said. “That should give every analyst pause, because no one can confidently answer the question yet: Are these changes permanent? And if not, how much is permanent?

“This is a perfect opportunity for legislators and their staff to ask each other ‘what kind of future do we want to build,’” he said.