2020 Capital Region Transportation Forum
The Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Greater Washington Partnership once again teamed up to host the region’s most highly anticipated transportation forum. Watch this 90 minute webinar to hear from top transportation leaders in DC, Maryland, and Virginia and national transportation experts on the future of transportation in our region.
Part 1: Panel Discussion
- Shannon Valentine, Secretary of Transportation, Commonwealth of Virginia
- Gregory Slater, Secretary, Maryland Department of Transportation
- Jeff Marootian, Director, District Department of Transportation
Part 2: Spotlight on the election’s impact on the national transportation landscape
- Larry Willis, President, Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO
- Beth Osborne, Director, Transportation for America
Both discussions were moderated by Tanya Snyder, transportation reporter for Politico.
Watch the Recording
Read the Summary
Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Tanya Snyder opened the conversation by asking the panel what the past eight months have looked like from the vantage point of a transportation leader. All three said that in the earliest days of the pandemic, ensuring the health and safety of transportation workers and travelers was the top priority. Safety-related construction had to continue, public amenities had to be regularly sanitized and properly ventilated. Secretary Slater also reminded the audience that just like their own companies, state departments of transportation also had to mobilize a remote workforce which entailed logistical and operational challenges, such as moving to fully paperless billing and deploying remote work technology.
Director Marootian explained that in the beginning of the pandemic, leaders were taking the situation one day or week at a time. But by June, it became clear that the pandemic would be with us for a long time, so government leaders had to think differently. The District added new bike lanes and reduced speed limits on many streets to support the public’s need for outdoor recreation. It also changed some parking and traffic rules to accommodate “streeteries.” Secretary Valentine described that the reality of the pandemic being a long-term situation prompted them to develop a new cash management system so that they could continue with planned transportation projects and could avoid laying people off and making the economic situation worse.
Keeping transportation projects on track
All three transportation leaders expressed a commitment to moving forward with planned transportation projects without delay, despite the enormous operational and budget challenges created by the pandemic. They echoed each other in saying that the pandemic has not changed their priorities, and in fact has only increased the urgency with which they support an efficient and high-performing transportation system.
Secretary Slater was adamant that the Purple Line will be completed. They are focused on design completion but also permitting and contracting, and they have taken over management of hundreds of contracts and sub-contracts to keep the project moving forward.
Secretary Valentine expressed similar determination about the Long Bridge. They are now working on passing the Long Bridge Act of 2020, which would allow a rail bridge to be built across National Park Service land. She said, “This last year of my life has really been about managing these commitments and finalize them through uncertainty” related to finances, revenues, and demands. She also thanked the Partnership and the Board of Trade for their support in helping to move necessary legislation forward. (At another point in the discussion, Director Marootian kindly said that he has not seen anyone operate as effectively as Secretary Valentine has in managing the Long Bridge project.)
Improving racial and social equity
Secretary Valentine said, “On equity issues, there are many decisions but one commitment.” She said that leaders must make that commitment to support equitable access to transportation for all. It starts with having strong leadership on this issue in multiple positions within the department, and then the department can integrate this viewpoint into all department decision-making.
Secretary Slater added that all transportation decisions need to consider the communities they serve in addition to their impact on transportation. For example, they increased service where they had the highest percentage of transit-dependent riders and cut service where members of a community most likely had alternatives. He also cites that pollution has affected communities unequally and that good transit planning can help reverse that.
On combatting the climate crisis
Tanya Snyder reminded the panelists and the audience that the United States saw record wildfires this year, and transportation is on the front lines of decarbonizing our economy. Director Marootian responded with reassurance that their sense of urgency on climate change was already high, and now it is higher. They are exploring creative ideas to incentivize transit use and discourage the driving culture that harms both safety and sustainability—which he says go hand in hand. He also said that the District is working hard to electrify its bus fleet.
Secretary Slater pointed out that sustainability is also related to social equity. Supporting all types of transportation, including transit and cycling, also supports different types of people. He said that he sees a future where some people are still driving cars, but they are mostly electric, and people have more access to transit and walkable communities. He also stressed the importance of electrification and proliferation of charging stations.
On the need for federal stimulus
All panelists stressed the need for federal stimulus funding during the pandemic so that transportation departments can continue to make progress on critical, long-term issues. Secretary Valentine said that federal support that accommodates multi-modal transportation is an opportunity to not just protect what we already have but to make big improvements. Secretary Slater elaborated that the CARES Act was critical, but more funds are needed. While departments of transportation will usually take a “fix it first” approach and prioritize maintenance of existing infrastructure, the engineering and planning for our future’s transportation system must start now. Federal support is critical for addressing that longer-term need for innovation. Director Marootian agreed, saying that we need to think about projects that need to be built 10 years from now, because that planning starts today.
The likelihood of a relief package
Beth Osborne explained that even though there is critical need for federal funding to support transportation infrastructure in the United States, especially during the pandemic, and there is bipartisan support for those projects, Congress always gets stuck when debating how much to spend. There is longstanding, fundamental disagreement on the role of the federal government and what dollar value is appropriate. (She also mentioned that the Senate runoff races in Georgia may influence Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decisions, but it is unclear how.)
She advised transportation advocates to stress the benefits of the projects that would be funded and avoid talking about the price tags until legislators and their constituents are excited. She said, “If people want to sell me on things, they should start with what I’m going to get, not what I’m going to spend.”
Larry Willis added that we need to remind elected leaders that there is a real cost in failing to invest in transportation. Hopefully, that message can break through the political inertia that has prevented us from making the right levels of investments.
Infrastructure investments in the Biden Administration
Larry Willis pointed out that Biden ran on a very pro-worker, pro-labor, pro-union platform. A big infrastructure deal is a good way to execute on that platform. He thinks Biden is well positioned to jump in and is ready to go.
Beth Osborne reminded the audience that one of the difficulties in infrastructure is that it seems to be everyone’s top priority once we get through all the emergencies but we never get through the emergencies. It will take a real, sustained commitment and effort to move forward. She is optimistic that COVID-19 recovery might actually help create the urgency for reinvestment.
What should be our top priority?
Beth Osborne advocated that we reverse some of the damage done by highway projects built in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. We need to think about long-term impacts of investments.
Larry Willis said we should make sure we have good labor policies in tandem with good infrastructure investments. He also stressed that the Biden Administration should be at the negotiating table on infrastructure legislation and not just leave it up to Congress—they ran on this platform and need to get in the fight.