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The USDOT budget request: a look at the President’s vision for transportation

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is famous for saying “show me your budget and I’ll tell you your values.”

Last week, the US Department of Transportation released its Fiscal Year 2022 budget request. Because Congress controls the “pursestrings” of the nation, the president’s request is just that: a proposed budget for the president’s priorities. This budget funds ongoing programs and also includes the “how” of the American Jobs Plan; it’s a detailed version of programs and funding across the agency and it serves as an advisory document (or wishlist) to Congress. Reviewing President’s Biden budget through the Speaker’s metric, here’s what his transportation budget tells us:

  1. That our transportation system should be more people-centered and less auto-centered, and to do that we need to substantially invest in transit, rail, bicycling and walking – and in communities. That also means focusing safety investments on vulnerable road users.
  2. That transportation infrastructure has been part of structural racism in our country, and that we should use our investments to reverse that going forward, through both redressing transportation projects that hurt communities of color and low income communities, and by investing in capacity to build back better in those communities. 
  3. That we need to change the status quo to address climate change, including electrifying the automotive vehicles fleet, plus investing in bicycling and walking, transit and rail and improving the connections between them. 

How will this affect Transportation Reauthorization?

The president’s budget request runs directly into the reality that for a bill with major policy changes to become law, it requires bipartisan support. That means congressional leaders often compromise to create a bill that can garner bipartisan support and pass into law. As advocates, that can mean we won’t get everything we want and we’ll have to keep pressing ahead on our goals through other legislation.

Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate are working to include elements of the president’s goals into the reauthorization bill. 

For instance, in the Senate bill released this past week included:

  • First ever equity considerations in transportation including funding to tear down highways that divide communities, and a priority to improve air quality in low income and communities of color.
  • Significant safety funding set aside for vulnerable road user (VRU) safety and integration of safe systems and VRU considerations throughout the safety program.
  • A requirement for states to develop Complete Streets standards and plans.
  • A performance measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and funding to help states meet those goals. 

If Biden’s budget is a vision, reauthorization is where the rubber hits the road. We’ve already seen a preview of what’s possible in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee draft of the reauthorization bill. The Senate bill ran directly into the reality that for a bill with policy changes to win the votes necessary, it will require bipartisan support. Therefore the Senate bill does not address all of Biden’s priorities. For example, it does less to address the balance of building new roads (a Republican priority) versus repairing and modernizing existing infrastructure (the Biden/ Democratic priority). 

What’s Next

We expect to see the House version of a transportation bill in the next week or so. That will give us another version of what the implementation of the president’s vision can look like.