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Ten Questions for the Next Secretary of Transportation

The incoming Secretary of Transportation will face numerous challenges. The poor state of repair of much of America’s infrastructure has been well-documented. As climate patterns shift and the impacts of extreme weather events increase, America’s $4.1 trillion worth of transportation infrastructure assets will be subject to stressors that will reduce their reliability and capacity. Transportation is also the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, making both climate change mitigation and adaptation urgent priorities.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced some of the stress on our nation’s roads, it has exacerbated other transportation challenges, such as the need to provide transit for essential workers, many of whom rely on it to reach their jobs. As state and local budgets reel from the impacts of COVID-19, it will be even more important for the federal government to promote economic recovery and resilience through smart transportation investments.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has led several initiatives to develop and advocate for consensus-driven, cost-effective, and bipartisan infrastructure policies. As the Committee considers the nomination of Pete Buttigieg to be Secretary of Transportation, we offer the following questions to be posed to Mayor Buttigieg:

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  1. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the country, the vast majority of which come from personal cars and trucks. The scientific consensus is that the United States must rapidly decarbonize to avoid worse climate-related impacts than those already underway. Creative solutions have been proposed, ranging from grant programs for investments that reduce emissions to added flexibility to use federal funds for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. What do you think are the most promising strategies for emissions reduction and what role will the Department of Transportation play in implementing those strategies?

  2. Infrastructure has a proven track record as a generator of economic growth, with every $1 in infrastructure investment adding $3 to the nation’s GDP. The greatest economic benefits are derived when funding is targeted to the highest priority needs, for example, projects that will increase connectivity and reduce congestion. If there is an economic stimulus package this year, how would you prioritize transportation funding to balance the need for a rapid recovery with the benefits that would derive from more impactful projects that may take longer to deliver?

  3. The United States faces a $2 trillion infrastructure funding gap over the next 10 years. Even more is likely needed when considering the imperative to quickly decarbonize transportation systems, reduce emissions, address climate change, and adapt our infrastructure to mitigate the unavoidable climate impacts already underway. What do you think are the three most promising ideas for transforming the way we plan, fund, and build infrastructure across the country in order to address these needs?

  4. Public-private partnerships (P3s) can be a key tool for state and local governments to address infrastructure needs. While P3s are not the right model for every project, under the right conditions, a P3 can deliver a more cost-effective and better performing project. What steps will the Department of Transportation take to encourage state and local agencies to evaluate all options, including P3s, when determining how to deliver projects?

  5. The previous two administrations both made changes to federal permitting and environmental reviews to improve the timeliness, predictability, and transparency of project approvals. These include the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, the online Permitting Dashboard, the assignment of certain NEPA authorities to states, and the concept of “One Federal Decision” led by the Office of Management and Budget and the Council on Environmental Quality. Do you believe these changes have improved the federal permitting process? What other changes would you consider making?

  6. As you know, the current extension of the FAST Act will expire on September 30 of this year. Additional revenues will need to be identified even to continue current levels of spending, let alone provide for more robust investment needed to tackle long deferred maintenance. Due to the complexity of implementing an entirely new fee, such as a VMT fee, in that short timeframe, an increase in the gas tax is the most straightforward way to address the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. Do you support raising the gas tax to provide for increased investment in transportation in the next reauthorization bill?

  7. A BPC effort spearheaded by former Reps. Bill Shuster (R-PA) and Joe Crowley (D-NY) noted that the federal government must do more to prepare for the transition to a user fee based on vehicle miles traveled. With rising ownership of electric and more fuel-efficient vehicles, transitioning from gas taxes to a user charge based on miles traveled will be fundamental to sustaining the user-pay, user-benefit principle embedded in current transportation funding. What steps will the Department of Transportation take under your leadership to begin the transition to a more sustainable revenue model for transportation?

  8. In construction, forecasting both upfront and long-term costs for an infrastructure project is called “life-cycle cost analysis.” While it may seem intuitively obvious that project developers would want to know how much it will cost to build and keep a project in a state of good repair, existing incentives often encourage undue focus on low-cost construction over longer-term operating costs and project durability. How can the Department of Transportation encourage its grant recipients to better incorporate long-term operating and maintenance costs into project planning, to ensure that projects built today anticipate climate-related vulnerabilities and perform well over their expected life?

  9. In recent years, there have been several bipartisan proposals for new financing mechanisms to leverage additional private investment for infrastructure. For example, unlike traditional municipal bonds, direct payment bonds can be attractive to institutional investors who do not have federal tax liability, such as pension funds. Private activity bonds or tax credits could be expanded to provide favorable financing terms to more public-private partnerships. Do you believe that additional financing tools would be helpful in meeting the nation’s transportation needs, and if so, what tools do you think are most promising?

  10. Lack of capacity at the state and local levels is one of the primary barriers to adopting emerging best practices in developing and delivering infrastructure projects to meet future needs. The federal government has a successful history of supporting state and local agencies with technical assistance regarding individual projects or applications; however, few programs focus on building long-term capacity to improve decision-making across the board. What can the Department of Transportation do to better support state and local transportation agencies in improving their internal decision-making and project development processes to better prepare for future needs?

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