Joshua Schank and Matthew Dallek
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood
with President Obama
In recent months, the heated-up healthcare debate has short-circuited a serious and much-needed discussion about America's transportation and infrastructure agenda -- and all of the economic benefits that will flow from enacting a revitalized transportation policy. Transportation has become a policy orphan amid the healthcare tsunami that's overwhelmed the news coverage of Obama's America.
The White House has argued repeatedly that unless a healthcare overhaul is achieved, the nation's economic picture will become increasingly bleak over time; transportation issues are hardly mentioned as a key to our economic future. Moreover, transportation issues are virtually absent from the broader climate change and energy debates.
And, although Obama's stimulus plan has mitigated the effects of the recession, it represents a missed opportunity to promote an infrastructure-building agenda that meets the needs of American society.
Any transportation project, including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, creates jobs
But, as we make infrastructure investments to create jobs, we should also be making investments that will ensure long-term economic growth. Instead, stimulus funds are focused only on jobs and shovel-ready projects -- targeting random projects with a scattershot quality about them.
The year 2009 resembles the moment in the World War II aftermath: Six decades ago, an explosion in highway and bridge building helped spark the process of suburbanization and ultimately redefined America's urban landscape.
In his landmark history of suburbanization in the United States, Crabgrass Frontier, Columbia historian Kenneth T. Jackson describes how the 1956 Interstate Highway Act helped produce more than 42,000 miles of new highways. The automobile became the king of transportation in the United States.
The Act, Jackson says, "encouraged the continued outward movement of industries toward the beltways and interchanges," and it "helped continue the downward spiral of public transportation and virtually guaranteed that future urban growth would perpetuate a centerless [suburban] sprawl."
Americans are still living in the world that the Highway Act established. That world is no longer sufficient to meet tomorrow's economic challenges though.
Congress and the Obama administration must begin thinking big on transportation policy -- adopting an infrastructure agenda that will spur long-term growth, limit dependence on foreign oil, reduce congestion on roads and highways, and cut the number of highway fatalities. Sadly, we are a long way away in 2009 from achieving a unified vision akin to Dwight Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System.
Despite its faults, the Interstate Highway System also produced enormous benefits: It represented a clear vision, direction, and purpose for the nation and its future infrastructure that was then needed. It decisively shaped the future of a nation, from enactment to present day.
That vision was born in the mid-20th century and is woefully anachronistic in our own times. Limited access highways connecting the nation were cutting-edge technology in 1956; now they are a major factor in global climate change and oil dependence and are often highly congested, unsafe, and unreliable. Our Fifties-era highways will continue to play a vital role in the future, but they must be more efficiently utilized; transportation policy and politics must move beyond a narrow focus on separate individual modes of transportation toward a more comprehensive and systematic approach nationwide.
Our focus now must be on the transportation system as a whole, and the ends we need it to achieve, rather than on haphazardly funding large-scale projects for specific types of transportation. The original Interstate Highway vision has degenerated into a political battle over who in Congress can deliver the most goods to their constituents.
The Highway Trust Fund -- created to build the Interstate System -- is now a pot of fuel tax revenue that Congress fights over how to divide every six years. Meanwhile, the nation's transportation system has been allowed to deteriorate as the rate of the fuel tax has remained stagnant and resources misdirected. The fatal Washington metro train collision suggests that perhaps we have not been allocating our resources effectively to make the appropriate safety improvements, for example.
When federal funding is raised and distributed for political purposes -- not national purposes -- this result is not surprising
As members of Congress move to authorize a new six-year transportation bill, they are presented with a rare bipartisan opportunity to restore this sense of national purpose. The current law, known as SAFETEA-LU, has become a symbol for all that is wrong in government -- loaded with earmarks such as the Bridge to Nowhere, it includes zero accountability for results. Full-blown reform is needed, indeed being demanded, by virtually everybody with a stake in transportation policy.
As the Bipartisan Policy Center's recent transportation policy report proposes, a new vision for transportation policy must define clear national goals, set performance measures to evaluate those goals, and then make sure recipients of federal funds are held accountable for meeting the performance measures.
Seems simple enough; but it is actually quite difficult to get Congress to agree on a national purpose if that national purpose will be directly linked to funding. Congress has a vested interest in seeing transportation dollars distributed according to political calculations.
Unfortunately, the nation cannot survive economically if this continues to be the case. Under the Bipartisan Policy Center's approach, people will ultimately have more transportation options, the cost of goods and services will decline as traffic congestion is reduced, and the transportation system will become safer. Competing in the global economy will require transportation investment decisions to be made wisely and on the basis of maximum economic, energy, environmental, and safety benefits. Countries that make poor investments based on outmoded thinking are destined to fall behind those that make smart, cutting-edge technological investments that deliver the most for our money.
The U.S. has the ability to be the leader in this area, as we have been in the past.
But only if we put aside regional, partisan, and ideological interests and focus on the greater national good.
Joshua Schank is transportation research director at the Bipartisan Policy Center and was the transportation policy adviser to former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Matthew Dallek is a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and teaches history and politics at the University of California Washington Center.
Ray LaHood: 'Transformational' Time for U.S. Transit System
Four months into his new position as secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood has a great deal on his plate. Given everything that is going on right now, is this a watershed moment for transportation?
A federal safety investigator says that the older subway train that slammed into the back of another on Washington's Metro system yesterday, killing nine people and injuring at least 70, should have been replaced years ago because of safety concerns.
Norman Borlaug Nobel Laureate Interview
Norman Borlaug is known as the father of the Green Revolution. His work with high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties is credited with saving as many as a billion people from starvation worldwide. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply. At age 95, a recent interview ...
The key to a good garden is good compost, and every gardener worth his salt should be making his own. Compost is a wonderful thing, plants are happy when grown in this sweet black soil amendment. Making your own is easy. Anything that once was living will eventually become compost. The trick is how fast you can harvest it.
Ever since I saw the Green light, thanks to my friend Laurie David, and traded in my gas-guzzling SUV, I've tried my best to up my eco-awareness.
Find your next job saving our planet as an Environmental Engineer. Search for Environmental engineering positions from thousands of job and career search sites. A search engine for jobs with a different approach to job and career searches. In one simple search, job seekers get free access to millions of employment opportunities from thousands of websites.
(c) 2009 U.S. News & World Report