New York, NY—President-elect Joe Biden’s Build Back Better economic plan calls for investing around $2 trillion to re-build and expand the country’s transportation and infrastructure network as a means to realize net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The plan has earned the praise of legislators and advocates alike who say that it could lead to the most consequential four years of transportation policy in U.S. history, particularly as it relates to low-income communities and people of color.
The New York City-based transit advocacy group, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, hosted a virtual meeting today that featured four panelists to discuss and answer a series of questions about the far-reaching impacts of a $2 trillion transportation and infrastructure plan, a plan that would be unprecedented in U.S. history in terms of the dollars invested and the scope of work proposed.
U.S President Donald Trump in his early days in office had proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, but he eventually backed off that proposal.
The panelists included Congressmember Adrian Espaillat, who represents New York’s 13th Congressional, and is a member of the influential House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in Congress, as well as Lateefah Simon, past President of the Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco, Beth Osborne, Director of Transportation for America and transportation expert and advocate Peter Peyser.
The panel discussion was moderated by TSTC’s Nick Sifuentes, who opened the discussion by noting how ambitious is Biden’s plan.
“This is an historic turning point to divest from fossil fuels across the industry and make a massive change towards zero emissions [on] transportation nationwide,” said Sifuentes.
“And with a focus on racial justice and a just workforce transition, the new administration’s transportation policy won’t just be about infrastructure, it’ll also be about putting people back to work in high-paying jobs while addressing a long-standing legacy of pollution, illness and death in low-income and black and brown communities.”
Sifuentes also noted the truly transformational aspects of the plan that could provide a major source of funding for transit agencies around the country who are in desperate need of emergency aid following the Covid-19 pandemic.
Locally, the plan could go a long way in spurring the construction and completion of big mega infrastructure projects such as the Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson River, a modernization of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor route, the Port Authority of NY&NJ’s Cross Harbor freight tunnel and a new midtown bus terminal on the West Side.
The big question, obviously, is how much Democrats, even with the two special election wins in Georgia that gave them a slim majority in the Senate, will be able to accomplish. Nonetheless, it’s a moment that Sifuentes said cannot be wasted.
“So, given the current state of affairs, we must find ways to push the new administration and Congress to be accountable to riders now and in the future. We cannot allow this moment to be wasted, we cannot continue the status quo of disproportionate investment in car infrastructure.”
Sifuentes then asked Congressmember Espaillat what did he expect the big priorities to be with the new administration, to which Espaillat said that he believes that New York will finally get the green light to introduce congestion pricing, which would provide a local source of funding for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as well as the funding to start Phase 2 of the 2nd Avenue Subway into East Harlem and Harlem. And he believes that the aforementioned regional mega projects will commence under a Biden administration.
“I think that the Biden administration is in a position where the Covid-19 pandemic has hit us hard not only in terms of health, but also the economy. We need to inject some oxygen into the economy and what better way than to do a major transportation/infrastructure bill and to do it the right way this time around,” said Espaillat.
Espaillat had to return to the House because it was introducing articles of impeachment against President Trump, but Sifuentes asked the Congressmember, who represents a district that includes one of the most historic communities of color in the country—Harlem—what does the new administration have to do to make sure that its transportation plan addresses issues of racial justice that have been underlying for many years.
Espaillat told the story of how one of his predecessors, Adam Clayton Powell Jr, who represented Harlem from 1945 until 1971, used to introduce an amendment—it came to be known as the Powell amendment—on the House floor with the purpose of defunding states that were practicing segregation. Each time that Congressmember Powell Jr. introduced the amendment, it was rejected by his Congressional colleagues.
It turns out, however, that the language of the amendment was ultimately drafted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, noted Espaillat.
“So, I see the injustice issue in a very similar way. I think that anything that is adopted or approved [in the transportation plan], whether fiscally or in terms of public policy must address the needs of those communities that have been left behind for so many years,” said Espaillat.
He added that his constituents have borne the brunt of the highest levels of asthma, the highest number of respiratory diseases that have contributed disproportionately to Covid-19-related deaths.
“Whatever we agree on in a transportation and infrastructure bill, we better have some results for those neighborhoods that have been left behind, because if we don’t we’d be doing more of the same.”