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National Journal Blog – Time to Think Big

As posted on National Journal’s Transportation Experts Blog

At the President’s Columbus Day meeting, I was proud to be at a White House that wants to transform the way we think about and invest in transportation. President Obama is thinking big, and his commitment to expanding and rebuilding America’s transportation network is going to be the key to getting it done.

I’ve long said that if we’re ever going to meet the needs of our decaying transportation system and infrastructure, we need to wring the partisan politics from the debate. Transportation bills have historically enjoyed bipartisan support. Decades of history are filled with examples of Republicans and Democrats coming together around big, often transformative transportation investments.

But today’s political stalemate is unlike any we’ve seen in recent history. The knee-jerk reactions to the Columbus Day meeting from a handful of congressional leaders – while not a surprise to anyone – were an illustration of a chronic problem in Washington that has derailed action on critically needed bills to invest billions in our nation’s surface, aviation and maritime transportation system.

It’s clear that we’re going to need the Administration’s leadership if we’re going to do anything worth doing.

The funny thing is there isn’t much disagreement about the need for America to invest in our infrastructure. 19 out of 20 Americans are concerned about our nation’s infrastructure, and 84 percent support greater investment to address it, according to the report by the Treasury Department and the Council of Economic Advisers at the President’s meeting. Major elements of the business lobby agree with us and not with the Congressional naysayers. Why? Because businesses of all sizes understand that the economy won’t turn around and they won’t thrive without a first-class transportation system, and that current investment levels get a failing grade.

In addition to the President’s $50 billion “down payment” on a long-term transportation funding plan (which should be enacted quickly), there are several key transportation bills and initiatives that flow naturally from the President’s plan. As we all know, the Federal Aviation Administration bill has been extended by Congress 15 times because a single corporate interest and its CEO didn’t like the House bill. Fortunately, the House and Senate are very close on a reconciled bill that boosts investment in airports and air traffic control, reduces airport congestion and delays, makes air travel safer and deals with key FAA operational and employee issues. The lame-duck session must not adjourn without completing this bill. The surface transportation bill has been delayed five times – it must be completed at a funding level of no less than half a trillion dollars. Estimates predict that this kind of robust bill would create six million jobs in six years. Transit systems and their workers are hurting – the Administration and Congress must move legislation this year that provides immediate operating assistance that stops the service and jobs cuts across America. In the absence of meaningful action, what is otherwise an industry poised for growth will instead go through a painful era of contraction. And making Amtrak the centerpiece of high speed rail and investing billions in our ports and freight rail systems must be priorities for today.

With transportation investments, we kill two birds with one stone: good, middle-class jobs get created in a sector that is in dire need of substantial new investments.

When all the election TV ads stop running next week and the lame-duck congressional session begins its work a couple weeks later, Members of Congress will have a chance to join the President and work on a bipartisan plan to rebuild our transportation system and put people to work.

It’s time for our elected officials to end the senseless, partisan squabbling, set aside the obstructionist tactics and step up to this responsibility. We will be doing our part to support the President’s plan to transform and massively expand America’s transportation system. Will those who want to lead Congress step up too? Or will they deploy the same old Washington playbook that for too long has turned Congress into a place where most good ideas go to die?

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