Congress weighs propping up a transforming transport system

Lawmakers must craft priorities for an industry upended by the COVID-19 pandemic

A worker on a platform reconstruction project at Reagan National Airport Metro Station in Arlington, Va., in  November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A worker on a platform reconstruction project at Reagan National Airport Metro Station in Arlington, Va., in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 10, 2021 at 5:35am

The COVID-19 pandemic upended virtually every aspect of the transportation industry. Now, one year later, lawmakers tasked with crafting infrastructure policy have to figure out which of those changes will be permanent.   

“It’s hard to tell if it’s going to be an old normal or a new normal,” said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “We just need to move forward.”   

Even before the pandemic, transportation faced turbulence as autonomous vehicles, drones and electric and hybrid vehicles were fundamentally changing the way people move.   

Then came COVID-19. Airlines and Amtrak each reported a 95 percent decrease in ridership. Travel on roads and streets dropped 13.2 percent, or 430.2 billion vehicle miles, from 2019 to 2020 after six years of steady growth in miles traveled.  

The cruise industry shut down altogether, with the CDC issuing no-sail orders. And private bus and motor coach companies saw their business all but disappear.

“We have never seen such short-term impacts as this,” said Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “The shock to the system was even more intense than the oil embargo in the 1970s in how it impacted transportation patterns.”  

For transportation employees like flight attendant Brittany Riley of Denver, a member of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union, the change was stark and agonizing.  

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Riley’s fear was both existential and economic. She and her husband, who is also a flight attendant, would shower and change clothes before seeing their three children, fearing they’d unknowingly make them sick. They had to enforce mask mandates on flights, risking the wrath of passengers. And in October, both were briefly furloughed after federal payroll protection expired, forcing them to briefly move in with her brother and dip into retirement funds in order to meet basic expenses.  

Lawmakers responded to the sudden changes by pouring federal dollars into protecting transportation modes, reasoning that the economy could not recover without transportation.   

Building for what?

But now, billions of dollars later, some conservative analysts wonder if Congress spent money on modes that may no longer be as heavily leaned on post-pandemic. 

“If Congress passes a bill that spends $2.2 trillion building new infrastructure, it could very well lead to infrastructure projects we don’t need that we have to spend a lot of money to build and maintain,” said David Ditch, a budget and transportation associate at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He calls it a “horrible time to spend a huge amount of money to build new infrastructure assets.”  

Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, said the goal of most COVID-19 stimulus bills “seems to be to lock in pre-pandemic business structures to keep people employed.”  

But, he said, “if travel behavior is permanently altered … eventually you’re throwing money at something that doesn’t exist and won’t exist anymore.”  

How that concern will play out in this year’s infrastructure package is yet to be seen. Democrats have called for a huge, transformative package that would juice the economy and help address climate change. Republicans agree on the need for an infrastructure bill but so far have embraced a narrower vision.  

“I don’t think this bill can get away from us in terms of cost,” said Graves, who has encouraged a bipartisan bill. “If it’s a Green New Deal bill with transportation projects in it, it will be hard to get any Republicans on board. That’s kind of where we are.”  

He and other Republicans also believe the pandemic has changed transportation patterns.  

Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the pandemic accelerated the shift from in-person to online retail. It also pushed employers to rethink and embrace telecommuting.  

Scribner described transportation policy during the pandemic as reactive, rather than proactive.  

“At the end of the day, we’re in bailout mode,” he said. “Eventually we’re going to have to start hearing some actual data and numbers.”

“This is where engineering and policy meet,” said Tomer, adding that crafting infrastructure policy also involves “making bets with precious public dollars” on what needs lawmakers must meet, he said.   

Needs remain

Scott Goldstein, policy director for Transportation for America, an advocacy organization for multiple transportation modes, said the need for transportation has continued despite the pandemic. It’s just changed shape.   

People became more reliant on walking or biking in their neighborhoods and spent less time going back and forth to urban centers. Sometimes they discovered that infrastructure in their own communities did not support walking or biking.  

Those changes, he said, “have exposed the limitations of our current system. We should use that as an opportunity to think about how we fix that.”

Others argue that the pandemic highlighted the importance of travel.   

Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, a labor organization of 33 unions representing transportation workers, said that while ridership dropped, even during the darkest days of the pandemic the supply chain operated, albeit more slowly.   

Now, with the vaccine going out, some things are slowly returning to normal. That makes it even more important, Regan said, to have a strong transportation system ready to accommodate that shift.  

“We can’t have a system barely scraping by and when people come back it’s not viewed as a viable option,” he said. “I think people will be shocked at how quickly we go back to our old patterns, to be honest with you. I really do.”  

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, is optimistic that the past year’s changes won’t be permanent. As the vaccine is distributed, she’s noticed more senior citizens return to flying. She expects other vaccinated groups to follow.   

While the crisis was “nothing like I’ve ever experienced,” the human urge to travel remains. And that, she said, will bring Americans back to normal.    

“Human beings want to be together,” she said. “That’s who we are.”