A Conversation with Anthony Foxx: Predictions for a Biden Transportation Policy

The Biden Administration is readying to take the reins. Who will President Biden appoint to major posts and what will his policy priorities be? His Administration could closely mirror President Obama’s. Today we hosted Obama’s former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to get a sense of what he sees coming down the line for federal transportation policy in the next few years. Anthony is now Chief Policy Officer at Lyft.

He expects Biden’s transportation policy to shore up local transit. Local transit agencies were struggling to cover their operating costs before the COVID crisis, now the revenue loss is catastrophic. Because they are strapped for funds, too many transit agencies cut services that hurt those who rely on transit to access essential jobs and services. The country is searching for ways to close equity gaps, and improving transit access is a great one. Private companies like Lyft offer free rides to get low-income residents to the polls, grocery store or to a job interview. It’s a shame that local transit agencies can’t afford to do the same. The federal government stopped supporting local transit operating expenses in the 1980s. Secretary Foxx hopes that will be reversed.

Clean vehicles will get a boost. This started under Obama, which Biden will likely accelerate. CAFE emission standards will be set higher for gas cars. The electric car tax credit could be expanded, along with the number of electric charging stations. Municipalities will be nudged to embrace cleaner transit vehicles.

The Biden Administration needs to find a new way to fund highway infrastructure. Since the 1950s, the Highway Trust Fund has relied on a gas tax, which is neither indexed to inflation nor been increased since 1993. It’s run deficits for years. Now with more Americans driving fuel efficient and electric cars, the gas tax no longer accurately reflects wear on the roads. A better approach would be a vehicle miles travel tax, detached from gas consumption.

Rail has enormous potential, and Anthony expects serious investments in rail. Biden has long been a champion of rail, commuting back and forth from DC to Wilmington on Amtrak. If better and faster rail routes were created, more people would use them. Anthony is excited about improvements like the Long Bridge project that create the necessary capacity to support a future high-speed rail line headed to the southeast. With investments like this, and Union Station, Anthony believes DC could become the central rail hub going from Boston down to Charlotte. And with the right investments in electric rail infrastructure, getting to Charlotte could take half as long as driving. Private investment is today driving new high-speed rail lines between city pairs: Orlando and Miami, Dallas and Houston, and connecting California’s major cities. Eventually a national system could develop around these local, electrified lines.

Anthony believes that the federal government must step in to standardize regulations for autonomous vehicles. When a person obtains a license, they must go to take a driving test at their local DMV, which is operated by their state. But what about the software driving a car? Who certifies that the software is safe? And what are the national standards that create safe AV operations? The federal government is best positioned to manage who is responsible for what. The Obama Administration developed the first set of guidance, but it’s not enough and the technology has advanced since then.

Consumers aren’t yet comfortable with fully autonomous vehicles (AVs), even though they are remarkably comfortable with airplanes that are functionally autonomous. But there are already components like self-parking or lane assist that are designed to get consumers more accustomed to giving computers more control. They may grow to feel safer in AVs. We know that traffic fatalities could be 85 percent lower if you remove human error.

Generally speaking, Anthony likes the idea that a mayor will be chosen to be Secretary of Transportation. He himself had been mayor of Charlotte before being enlisted by Obama to take the job. Mayors Eric Garcetti from Los Angeles and Keisha Lance Bottoms from Atlanta are on the short list. Mayors are somewhat captive to decisions made at the federal and state level and have to figure out how to make things work. They interact on a practical level with the federal machinery for on-the-ground implementation.

He would give the in-coming Secretary some advice. First, any big signature infrastructure investment has to get done in the first 6 months. If it’s not done early, it won’t happen. Second, have a good relationship with Treasury and the President’s economic advisors, because any large infrastructure package runs straight into the conundrum of how it’s paid for. Third, look for bold projects and then push them through the review process quickly. When he was Secretary, they tried doing concurrent reviews all at once with agency reps in the room together. That’s how they managed to build the Mario Cuomo bridge in 18 months when it might have taken the more normal 5 years.

But the best ideas for bold solutions usually bubble up from the local level. This is especially true for projects that are equity focused. Federal highway construction destroyed minority neighborhoods. Now local communities should develop their own ideas for how to mend the scars. The process would also work better if there was more diversity on state and local transportation boards. The next Transportation Secretary could launch an equity-focused competition program similar to the 2016 Smart Cities challenge. Cities would then put together their own plans and compete for federal dollars to execute them. Normally Transportation Secretaries are captive to the projects presented to them. It’s up to local leaders to present thoughtful projects.

On equity, Lyft and the whole ridesharing industry can be proud that they are helping to drive social progress. The software prevents racial bias. In one survey of a predominantly minority neighborhood in Chicago, rideshares were four times more likely to serve the community than taxi cabs. Also, in Chicago, more than 60 percent of trips are for first or last mile connections to transit. Drivers also tend to use Lyft as a way to plus-up their income. Only 2 percent of drivers work for more than 40 hours a week. More than 90 percent work 20 hours a week or less. In other words, ridesharing can expand transportation access and flexible work for those who may have been locked out of both.

Anthony’s outlook on the future of transit under the Biden administration is bright, and urges both policy makers and private sector leaders to think big and bold about what the future of transit holds for the United States.

You can watch a recording of the conversation here.