ARTBA: Preparing for 2021 with the Benefit of Hindsight

By Dave Bauer
ARTBA President & CEO

“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
–Winston Churchill 

The peaceful transition of power is a hallmark of American democracy, signifying fresh faces and sometimes fresh perspectives to tackle long-standing challenges. As the nation prepares for the Jan. 20 transition, our own preparations begin with an assessment of the recent past in search of lessons and insights on how to impact the future. 

Four years ago, we inaugurated a president who elevated the need for infrastructure renewal to unprecedented heights. Viewed as the consummate outsider, Donald Trump drew praise and support from both Republicans and Democrats alike for his calls for infrastructure investment. Outside the Beltway, Wall Street analysts forecasted dramatic performance improvements for all manner of infrastructure firms. 

Unfortunately, some critical steps between anticipation and actualization were overlooked along the way. President Trump’s advisors produced a comprehensive plan to achieve his $1.5 trillion infrastructure goal that was largely based on private sector and non-federal money. But that vision never gained traction on Capitol Hill, where bridge building and consensus are necessary for progress. 

Even though President Trump’s regulatory savvy led to streamlined project delivery regulations, a wave of new infrastructure projects to utilize these reforms failed to materialize. 

Now, as enthusiasm builds for major infrastructure legislation in 2021, we are wise to heed Winston Churchill’s advice about how the learnings of the past can enhance the future. 

President-elect Joe Biden touted bipartisan credentials during his campaign, and with a long career in the Senate, these relationships on both sides of the aisle certainly may help advance policy objectives. As vice president, Biden also oversaw implementation of 2009’s economic stimulus bill. While that measure certainly prevented a bad situation from getting worse, the total experience reinforces that short-term plans often yield short-term results.

When Congress turns its focus from COVID-19 relief to economic recovery, this lesson should prove particularly instructive. 

Looking forward, we know the changeover of the executive branch does not mean our infrastructure efforts will start at square one. Roughly 470 of the 535 members of the House and Senate will return for another term, including the key congressional players who crafted robust multi-year highway/transit investment proposals in 2019 and 2020. 

In addition to that substantial foundation, the nation and its leaders know economic renewal is essential. While Republicans and Democrats disagree on policy prescriptions more often than they agree, there is little doubt about infrastructure investment’s overwhelmingly bipartisan track record. Those realities dovetail with the Sept. 30 expiration of federal highway and public transportation spending. This means Congress and the new President will need to act in some form. 

Our challenge—and opportunity—is to work to ensure that congressional action is a springboard to restart the nation’s economy as opposed to a backward embrace of the status quo. After a year of upheaval, we are committed to making 2021 a year of consequence and progress.

Buckle up.

 (This column appears in the November/December issue of ARTBA’s Transportation Builder magazine.)