Most Americans are growing accustomed to the visible signs around them of a crumbling, outdated transportation infrastructure. Those who drive between Washington, DC and New York just found out that the bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, DE is closed indefinitely because of tilted columns. Those who rely on public transit in places like Seattle and Pittsburgh know all too well that anemic funding coming out of Washington, combined with stressed state budgets is causing deep cuts in service. And Americans also see the signs of an unimpressive recovery and unacceptably slow job market – both a product of low growth policy strategies. What is perhaps most frustrating is that too many politicians are failing to see the solution, even when it smacks them in the face.
The traditional strategies have either failed or have little hope of succeeding. Historically low interest rates, designed to spur demand, haven’t paid-off because we haven’t used this era of near zero interest rates or “free money,” to actually invest in job-creating measures. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that putting public resources to work while interest rates are at historic lows makes good sense. Someone tell our leaders in Washington.
Inexplicably, the strategy of using massive public investments to rebuild our transportation infrastructure continues to meet head winds. And while you wouldn’t glean this from today’s rancor in Washington (such as a ridiculous proposal to offset highway and transit funding shortfalls by eliminating 6-day mail delivery), investing federal resources to modernize the transportation arteries of our economy and put people to work isn’t an idea owned by a single political party. Because both conservatives and liberals get a little upset when their bridge becomes wobbly or their transit service gets cut.
The laws that led to historic investments in our interstate highway and aviation networks were signed by President Eisenhower. President Kennedy signed the legislation that launched our public transit system. Those liberals, President Richard Nixon and President Ronald Reagan, got behind rebellious ideas like Amtrak’s creation or a federal gas tax to fund public transit, highways and bridges. And President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich cooperated to enact a large bill expanding surface transportation investments.
This is serious business. Our aviation system suffers from outdated technology and inadequate capacity, our rail and transit systems are forced to curtail service as demand soars, our bridges and highways are literally falling apart, and our starved ports and navigation channels are fast becoming uncompetitive with the rest of the world.
While there are still robust (and I might argue, ridiculous) debates ahead on the role of public investment as a tool for economic growth and job creation, the fact is that low interest rates alone haven’t spurred the pace of economic growth that’s needed. And this “free money” era – because it wasn’t married with a serious, well-funded transportation investment plan – will have been squandered unless we act soon. Yes that will require finding new money – and yes, it will require a little extra courage to make tough decisions like increasing fuel taxes or pushing other revenue raisers and tax reforms.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is right on the mark: “Better transportation has always led this nation to greater prosperity.” I couldn’t agree more. We won’t find prosperity for more Americans if we stop investing in transportation and keep deferring the bill to future generations.
For too long Washington has become the place where most good ideas go to die. Let’s hope low growth policies are fast replaced by a plan to rebuild, retool and expand a passenger and freight transportation system that can’t wait much longer for Washington to act.