Webinar Recap: Transportation Spending and Planning in the Time of COVID

The coronavirus pandemic has hammered state and municipal budgets across the United States. A recent analysis from the National League of Cities found that nearly two thirds of localities have paused or halted capital expenditures and infrastructure investments for roads, bridges, public transit, and other projects. At the same time, infrastructure spending is often considered a key stimulus tool designed to aid the struggling economy through needed investments and jobs.

Last week, Eno co-hosted a webinar with the Association of Equipment Manufacturers that took place as part of the United for Infrastructure Events. Eno’s President and CEO, Robert Puentes, moderated a discussion with some leading voices from around the country to talk about transportation planning and policy in the time of COVID-19. The speakers included:

Rodney Slater, Partner, Squire Patton Boggs; Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation
Joshua Schank, Chief Innovation Officer, Los Angeles County Metro
Alan Pisarski, Independent Consultant
Jeffrey Reed, President and CEO, Basic Resources, Inc. and VSS International; Board of Directors Chair, Association of Equipment Manufacturers

The webinar began with an opening presentation from Alan Pisarski, who summarized his provocative commentary originally published by the Reason Foundation, Five Steps to Guide Transportation Planning During Coronavirus Pandemic. The first step is a call for a moratorium on all expansion-based transportation investments, with the exception of bridge or functional construction projects. The second step is improving the condition of existing systems and modernizing them. The third step is examining telework trends, which Pisarski argued will be significant and should be encouraged to improve congestion, pollution, commuter time, and travel costs. The fourth step is shifting transportation funding to serve the accessibility needs of lower-income populations, who often need access to physical workspaces. The fifth step is emphasizing a strong focus on private sector solutions in order to address the needs of vulnerable populations in a timely manner, rather than through the slow process of a major infrastructure project.

Secretary Slater offered a different perspective. He raised concerns about working on the system as it currently stands because it was far from perfect before the pandemic: “In thinking of this system for the future, it has to help us live in a future that will hopefully continue to give us the kind of economic opportunities and pursuit of life opportunities that we have enjoyed in the past.” He also offered the perspective of viewing telecommuting as an opportunity to use technology to bring the interior of the country on a more equal playing field when it comes to productivity. In addition, he stressed the importance of building on the existing foundation of the transportation system to create opportunities and discover key insights, including open streets and multi-use environments as new economic hubs.

While Joshua Schank acknowledged that his team at LA Metro may have many of the same conclusions as Pisarski, he asserted that they have fundamental differences in their approach to pandemic recovery. Schank said that they believe density is critical to economic success and that telecommuting does not change that people need to be near to others, so a return of congestion is inevitable and already happening in Los Angeles. He contended that, “The existing system was wholly inadequate as it existed prior to the pandemic. But, particularly for the most vulnerable members of society, the most low-income members, we had a system where the folks who could not afford to purchase vehicles were largely stuck in buses that were stuck in traffic and were very, very inefficient.”

Schank also expressed opposition to a moratorium on capital investments because it would be unfair to voters and challenged Pisarski’s approach that private innovation will necessarily help vulnerable populations. He shared that while TNCs are important and effective partnerships between them and public agencies can be made, TNCs often block bus lanes, congest roads, and add to pollution, as well as fail to serve low-income, disabled, and unbanked populations.

Jeffrey Reed spoke about the need for maintenance and COVID’s impact on the asphalt industry. He discussed how the California wildfires have created a necessity for new infrastructure and resurfacing roadways, noting pavement maintenance as a key area to be addressed. Reed said that, “We’ve never really built ourselves out of the problems we have in the transportation network right now, and I don’t know how you get there unless you put that investment in.” He contended that the biggest problem in transportation is that the system for renewing infrastructure bills occurs on an annual basis, which makes planning for the future difficult. He also shared concerns about the reliance on declining gas taxes for future infrastructure projects and how that landscape is changing due to electric vehicles, as well as high trucking freight costs impacting roadways.

Throughout this lively discussion, one thing remained clear—infrastructure projects will play a much different role in the post-COVID future and returning to old solutions will not address the problems of today. To learn more, click here to access the webinar recording.

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