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Kevin Brubaker

Memo from the Midwest: What the Biden administration should prioritize to improve transportation

As the transportation crossroads of America, the Midwest can lead our nation in addressing environmental challenges. We look forward to working with the Biden administration and Congress to find win-win solutions.

It’s a new year and we have new federal leadership, but there is already a lot to tackle. As President Biden noted during his inauguration, our nation faces the twin threats of climate change and COVID-19. They have their nexus in transportation. Transportation is the #1 source of climate pollution today, so our transportation policies all need to be geared towards reducing carbon emissions. Public transportation is a key component of the solution, but COVID-19 has created an existential threat to transit agencies nationwide.   

The Midwest is the transportation crossroads of America and can lead our nation in addressing these challenges. We look forward to working with the Biden administration and Congress to find win-win solutions:   

Public transportation

Transit ridership has plummeted during the pandemic, with many white-collar commuters working from home, hurting fares and putting every transit agency in dire straits. But they have only been able to work from home because essential workers keep them fed, supplied, and healthy – and many of these frontline workers depend upon transit. So, while far fewer people are paying transit fares, we are all as dependent as ever upon it; we are all connected, and everyone deserves options for mobility. We need to recognize that, just like the postal service, public transit is a public service we all need. 

“We are all connected, and everyone deserves options for mobility. We need to recognize that, just like the postal service, public transit is a public service we all need.” 

Transit ridership may look different today, but it has never been more important, and if we let it falter now, we’ll be in real trouble when we emerge out of this pandemic. According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, if just 25% of commuters choose to drive instead of taking public transportation after COVID that would mean 193,000 more hours in traffic & $1.2 billion in lost productivity. This issue extends far beyond Chicago. From Des Moines and Minneapolis to Green Bay and Columbus, public transportation systems are essential for functional cities and towns across the region. We need assistance from Washington, not to fix potholes, but to keep trains and buses running to rebuild our economy.   

The bipartisan economic relief bill that passed in December included $17 billion for transit, Amtrak, and private bus service, which was a step in the right direction. We hope to see more funding to sustain and rebuild our critical transportation networks as the Biden administration and the new Congress negotiate a new stimulus package and infrastructure funding to truly “build back better.”  

Follow the money

For too long, federal transportation debates have focused on how we spend money, not how we raise it. Over the last decade $114 billion has been transferred from the general fund to the highway account of the Highway Trust Fund – in essence, paying people $114 billion to drive more. Is it any wonder that we have congestion and air pollution? Any future federal transportation program should be built upon the fundamental principle that taxpayers will no longer subsidize driving. Congress must develop a new approach to authorizing transportation legislation and spending that stops subsidizing driving and effectively invests in the system we need to recover the economy, protect and strengthen public transportation and rail services, and address the climate crisis.   

Midwest Passenger Rail

At the heart of our nation’s transportation system, the Midwest is a prime place for improving passenger rail. Within a 400-mile radius, efficient modern trains can deliver passengers downtown-to-downtown almost as quickly as airplanes, with significantly less carbon emissions than cars. By serving downtown centers, trains counteract the centrifugal force of urban sprawl and fuel small businesses in walkable communities. If we want to ease congestion, maximize land use, and improve mobility, rail is the best investment for an interconnected Midwest. ELPC has led the charge to improve passenger rail improvements throughout the region for many years. We need a leader who gets it. We hope to see “Amtrak Joe” make a difference and advance a modern, effective passenger rail network.  

Transportation is the #1 source of climate pollution today, so our transportation policies all need to be geared towards reducing carbon emissions.

Safe walkable & bikeable communities

Walking and biking are the most sustainable and affordable ways of getting around, especially paired with public transportation. Unfortunately, safety is a major concern in many communities, as pedestrian deaths continue to rise every year. In fact, deadly crashes in Chicago and elsewhere actually increased during the COVID crisis, perhaps because less traffic has allowed more drivers to ignore speed limits. While ELPC and our allies are working hard to advance electric vehicles, we also need to reduce vehicle miles traveled and implement traffic-calming measures. 

Our new Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg confirmed his commitment to “roadways where pedestrians, bicycles, vehicles, and any other mode can coexist peacefully” in his confirmation hearing. We look forward to helping advance this goal.

We may face great challenges, but the Midwest is already implementing great solutions. We look forward to working with new federal leadership at the Department of Transportation and with Congress to advance clean transportation across our region and beyond.   

Kevin Brubaker,

Deputy Director

Kevin Brubaker is the deputy director of ELPC, with chief financial management and organizational administrative responsibilities, and leads the organization's transportation work.

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