by Edward Wytkind, President of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO
Last week, I was proud to be at a White House that wants to dramatically increase investments in our transportation systems and sees them as a solution to an economy still stuck in neutral. In the meeting he hosted, President Obama articulated his commitment to think big — to transform and massively expand America’s transportation network.
But before I returned to my office, certain Republican leaders were already vilifying the President’s initiative. With the approaching mid-term elections and some extreme forces fully entrenched in certain races, such a knee-jerk reaction — while certainly not a surprise — was nonetheless disappointing. An issue that is so integral to the nation’s economic future shouldn’t get a cold shoulder from those vying to lead our next Congress. The President’s proposal deserves a fair hearing from both political parties. Why? Because there is no such thing as a Republican or Democratic airport, transit system, railroad, highway or port.
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 are natural extensions of the President’s plan. The Federal Aviation Administration bill has been postponed 15 times. 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. It must be completed in the lame-duck session. The surface transportation bill has been delayed five times — it must be completed at a funding level of $500 billion. Transit systems and their workers are hurting — the Administration and Congress must move legislation that provides immediate operating assistance. And making Amtrak the centerpiece of high speed rail and investing billions in our ports and freight rail systems must be priorities for today. The short-term benefit of these and other investments is the creation of millions of good jobs at a time when American families need them. The long-term benefit is ensuring that America remains competitive in a global economy.
Major elements of the business lobby — not exactly allies of the labor movement on most issues — agree with us, not with the Congressional nay-sayers. Businesses of all sizes understand that they will not thrive without a first-class transportation system and current investment levels are not doing the job. Former Secretaries of Transportation from both parties attended the White House meeting and explained that chronic under-investment makes us less competitive in the global marketplace and costs U.S. businesses and commuters billions while waiting in traffic. And governors and mayors reminded us that when their transportation systems are allowed to deteriorate, the consequences can be devastating for the nation.
We also know that the long overdue investments in the President’s plan are a proven way to create and sustain jobs. The Department of Treasury estimated the jobs created by transportation investments go primarily to a workforce with a higher than average unemployment rate. Due to the transportation investments in the economic recovery bill alone, there are 1.5 million more American families who can pay their bills.
Transit agencies across our country, faced with historic budget crises during this recession, are cutting service and jobs and raising fares. By providing transit agencies assistance with their operating costs, we not only preserve vital services and the jobs of transit workers — we also keep the transit industry growing at a time when Americans need more transit services, not fewer. In the absence of meaningful action in Washington, what is otherwise an industry poised for record growth will instead go through a painful era of contraction.
We must support passenger rail and implement the president’s high-speed rail program in the right way. That means making sure that Amtrak — with its well-trained, experienced workforce — is fully funded and given the opportunity to provide new high-speed rail service. Outsourcing high speed rail to the lowest bidders is a mistake and runs counter to the long-term vision we must have for a safe national passenger rail network. And we need to be sure that skilled union workers build the new systems and that the new train equipment that will be rolled out is built here in America. This new era of transportation investments can boost our manufacturing base — it should not be used to boost manufacturing jobs overseas.
When it comes to the important goal of doubling American exports in the next five years, we’re going to need more modern and efficient airports, air traffic control, ports, freight rail systems, and multimodal centers to make that happen from a delivery standpoint. They will barely handle the traffic of a recovering economy, not to mention significantly expanded exports. Investing in transportation is essential if the U.S. is to remain competitive in a global economy. Other countries understand the link: most notably China, but also places like India and Russia are winning the race to expand their transportation systems.
What is sorely needed now is this: a new effort to wring the partisan politics out of an issue that used to enjoy much more bipartisan support and is so important to our economy. We applaud President Obama’s call for long-term investment in transportation, and will do what we can to support this growing momentum. We need to think big. America can’t afford not to.