What Will Biden’s Transportation Priorities Be? A Preliminary Analysis

The first week and a half of the Biden administration has seen a flurry of activity: thirty executive orders and actions were taken in the first three days alone, with new announcements every day this week as well. Three of the earliest orders touched transportation and energy issues: an order promoting COVID-19 safety in domestic and international travel, an order to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, and an order that will block a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and direct agencies to review more than 100 Trump executive actions on the environment.

Biden has nominated for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who emphasized infrastructure in his campaign for the Democratic candidacy and touted a $21 million investment in “Smart Streets” to revitalize downtown South Bend as the city’s mayor. Biden has nominated as Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, who, since serving as Michigan’s governor, has maintained a focus on renewable energy development, and, particularly, the electrification of American cars.

Among Biden’s most expensive proposals is his sweeping $1.7 trillion plan to tackle climate change. Biden’s executive orders on climate and the environment will freeze new oil and gas leases on federal lands; conserve at least 30% of federal lands and oceans by 2030; double wind energy production by 2030; and establish an interagency climate task force; all with a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

With climate, infrastructure, and clean energy jobs as guiding focuses, here is a preliminary view of the transportation policies that we can expect from the Biden Administration:

Electric Vehicles and Fuel Efficiency

Biden’s “Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution” includes a $400 billion investment in clean energy and innovation. A significant part of this plan is working toward the widespread use of electric vehicles.

Automakers expect a push for a new agreement to raise average fuel economy standards across fleets, which will require them to sell more electric vehicles. Under Trump’s standards, they would have had to show 1.5% fleetwide fuel economy increases from 2022-2025, which had been lowered from the 4.7% standard of the Obama Administration. There are currently around twenty fully electric vehicles for sale in the US, with many more expected to pop up in the next few years, including electric pickup truck models from GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler. Ford has pledged $11 billion to introduce a variety of new EVs, while GM has committed $27 billion to electric powertrains, vehicles, and autonomous systems through 2025.

On the manufacturing side, Biden hopes to make the U.S. a leader in electric vehicle production, with a goal of creating 1 million new jobs in the auto sector. On the consumer side, he has floated plans to offer rebates for consumers to replace conventional cars with electric vehicles. He has pledged to add 550,000 charging stations across the US.

Biden also plans to electrify the government fleet. In 2019 there were 645,000 civilian, military, and post office vehicles in the federal government’s fleet. Fulfilling this goal will create jobs in the industry, accomplish net-zero transportation-related carbon emissions for the federal government, and provide long-needed updates for postal workers. In anticipation of this plan, part of GM’s electric and autonomous vehicle investment will be in its defense unit, which relaunched in 2017.

Infrastructure

For decades, infrastructure development and maintenance has been synonymous with road funding. Attempting to break away from this pattern, Biden’s $2 trillion “Build Back Better” plan includes development goals for transit and power; upgrading and weatherizing buildings; constructing sustainable homes; innovating clean energy technology; streamlining agriculture; and expanding internet access.

Nicknamed “Amtrak Joe,” Biden’s infrastructure plan includes “sparking the second great railroad revolution.” He plans to work with Amtrak and private freight companies to electrify their fleets. Biden is also aiming to invest in quality public transportation in the roughly 315 American municipalities with populations of more than 100,000 by 2030.

Biden’s plan to expand broadband internet or wireless broadband via 5G also targets transportation and climate change by supporting a transition to remote work.  

An advisor to Biden recently announced that the Administration believes an infrastructure bill of up to $2 trillion is possible within Biden’s first 100 days. Absent legislation, the administration can still shape approximately $1 billion in Department of Transportation grants to promote this agenda; the Trump administration focused on road projects encouraging car travel with these grants.

Autonomous Vehicles

The Trump administration took a purposefully hands-off approach to regulating autonomous vehicles (AV). The National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA) promulgated voluntary guidance, which contained twelve safety elements for testing. Of the 66 companies with permits to test these vehicles in California, only 32 submitted these self-assessment reports, and not all of those were rigorous.

While there is not an explicit Biden plan on autonomous vehicles, Buttigieg’s infrastructure plan during his run included reassembling the Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation, which Trump secretary Elaine Chao had disbanded, and proposing that NHTSA take on a strong federal role for the regulation and oversight of AV safety. A request for comments on AV safety in the waning days of the Trump Administration could be a jumping-off point for these plans.

Granholm has expressed concerns about the labor implications of AV, which could also shape the Biden Administration’s AV policies.

Micromobility

When campaigning, Biden promised to help cities “invest in infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and riders of e-scooters and other micromobility vehicles.” The Biden Administration may therefore account for micromobility as part of is transportation and infrastructure policies.

One development in Congress in this area is the bipartisan Bicycle Commuter Act of 2021, which was recently introduced into the House. The Act would bring back and strengthen an expired pre-tax benefit program for bike commuters, increasing the benefit and ensuring that cyclists could be eligible for other transit coverage. This could be a starting point on micromobility.

Environmental Justice

The early actions of the Biden Administration demonstrate a focus on environmental justice unparalleled by any previous president. On Wednesday it was reported that Biden will sign an executive order establishing an interagency council on environmental justice, an office of health and climate equity in the Department of Health and Human Services, and an office of environmental justice at the Department of Justice. These orders will double down on the promises of a Clinton executive order to ensure that environmental justice considerations are a part of all federal projects. Biden’s clean energy plan includes a goal to support the health and wellbeing of those who have been impacted by fossil fuels, including advocating for new jobs in renewable energy in oil and gas towns. Biden’s infrastructure plan includes a goal of “disadvantaged communities” receiving 40% of the benefits of government spending on energy efficiency.

Accordingly, any of the Biden Administration’s transportation policies may need to account for disproportionate impacts on marginalized communities in the U.S.

Overall, achieving low carbon emissions, investing in sustainable infrastructure, and promoting environmental justice will be the central concerns of the Biden administration that will drive its transportation policy. While there is little in the way of specific policy on AV and micromobility, we are likely to see increased research and regulation in these and other emerging transportation areas.