The questions of how to generate more high-paying jobs in America and how to regain our pre-eminence as the world leader of safe and efficient transportation are ones that shouldn’t be asked on separate tracks.
We need a transportation network in this country that is interwoven and properly funded from our waterways to our railways to our runways to our highways. As I explained at a Transportation Research Board (TRB) panel on high-speed rail (HSR) earlier this week, we can’t be an economic power if we’re defined by slow passenger trains, eroding bridges, over-crowded transit systems, aging aviation technology, congested highways and ports that are choking the economy.
One piece of that overall strategy, a product of President Obama’s vision, is the development of a national HSR network.
And Amtrak must be the centerpiece of this network . Amtrak has the experience with federal safety regulations, the skilled workforce and the expertise to deliver HSR to Americans. We know President Obama and America’s most avid Amtrak passenger, Vice President Joe Biden, are committed to stopping the practice of making the rail company run a national system on a shoestring budget. Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood deserve credit for making HSR a legacy issue and in trying to reinvigorate U.S. transportation manufacturing with Buy America policies.
So why are we still so far behind other nations? For one thing, we need a large, skilled workforce to carry this out. America is littered with examples of botched privatization and contracting schemes that left us with reduced wages, weakened health care and pension protections, and eroded or eliminated bargaining rights. This labor model ensures our HSR goals will fail miserably.
I told the TRB meeting it is disingenuous – perhaps dishonest – for us to plot and debate strategies for workforce development, training and recruiting if we fail to give workers a path to the middle class. I want to look a high school or college student in the eyes and be able to say that HSR and other transportation industry jobs offer a clear path to the middle class. It would be a travesty for America to pay billions for a state of the art HSR system but then cut all the wrong corners in hiring.
I’ll be back at it at the TRB annual meeting on Jan. 17 (#TRBAM) discussing and tweeting about how workforce development becomes a front-and-center issue in the debate over how America transitions to the next generation, multi-modal transportation system that can support middle class careers.