Transportation and COVID-19: A State Guide to Policy and Priorities

About the Author
Mariya Frost
Director, Coles Center for Transportation Nov. 2017 - May 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced unprecedented uncertainty into everyday transportation operations and long-term transportation planning. Travelers have drastically reduced commuting and their use of crowded, shared-transportation modes, including mass transit.

It is unclear when—or if—travel will return to past trends or whether this “new normal” will persist indefinitely.

This publication aims to help guide state legislatures and state-focused policy organizations as they navigate transportation policy decisions, both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery, with a focus on mitigating risks to public-sector transportation operations and infrastructure investments. And it outlines “what states can do” on key issues, including:

1. Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) for Infrastructure

Long-term infrastructure public-private partnerships (P3s) can be especially valuable in the post-COVID-19 environment, as state and local governments are under severe fiscal stress. Because these long-term P3s are financed based on future revenues over a long period (typically 30-to-50 years), critical major infrastructure projects can be financed now and construction can begin much earlier than under normal cash-based project funding.

2. Reinvent Mass Transit

Many of today’s mass transit systems are expensive, provide poor service, and cater to wealthy choice-customers who use transit service infrequently. Transit agencies that receive taxpayer subsidies need to prioritize service for low-income, transit-dependent customers who have no other mobility options. To improve service quality, transit agencies need to coordinate mobility options, contract service with quality private providers, ensure choice customers pay their full costs, and redesign transit services to operate in a grid-based pattern.

3. Reduce Amtrak Subsidies

Despite a 90 percent decline in ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic—and plenty of evidence that intercity passenger trains were largely obsolete before it hit—many in Congress want to quadruple subsidies to intercity passenger trains. Government is counting on the states to contribute to those subsidies, as 18 states already do, yet this is an unnecessary burden on taxpayers.

4. Strengthen the Users-Pay Principle

As policymakers face daunting budget holes given the impact of COVID-19, it may be tempting to weaken existing fuel tax protections or divert additional gas tax revenue away from roads in order to fill potential operating budget deficits. This should be avoided. Long-term travel trends and projections all point to a need for additional investment in our highway system. Strengthening the users-pay principle would ensure that motor fuel tax revenue is directed to necessary repairs that will ensure roads are safe and dependable during and after the COVID-19 economic recovery.

5. Consider the Role of Working from Home

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the use of telecommuting and created a flight from many of the nation’s largest downtowns and urban cores to the dispersed periphery of these areas. Because the densest urban urbanization is insufficiently resilient to operate during a pandemic, governments should repeal urban containment and densification policies.

6. Prioritize the Resilience of Highways

To safeguard against unexpected events such as pandemics, recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters, states must emphasize the need for resilient transportation systems. The most resilient transportation system is the use of motor vehicles and highways. Public officials should prioritize making our highway systems more reliable for people who increasingly depend on private automobiles for safe travel.

7. Encourage a Permissive Regulatory Environment for Future Mobility

Automated vehicle technologies hold great potential to improve safety, mobility, accessibility, and overall quality of life. At this early stage in the development of automated vehicles, policymakers should focus on identifying outdated motor vehicle policies that unduly limit automated vehicle development, testing, and deployment within their states. Policymakers should also prepare for an extended period of uncertainty by avoiding prescriptive policymaking built on assumptions that will likely prove inaccurate as these technologies develop.

Read the full report here.

Read the press release here. 

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