By Tony Lucadomo
America’s transportation infrastructure is in a state of disrepair, and existing policy is unable to meet the nation’s current and future needs. The shortcomings of our transportation infrastructure are well known. The state of the nation’s roads, bridges, ports, and railways is unacceptable. Social and economic costs abound. Only with strong presidential leadership can we tackle this issue and move forward.
Earlier this year, the Miller Center at the University of Virginia organized the David R. Goode Conference on Transportation Policy to tackle the problem. The event brought together leaders from across the policy community to devise a strategic framework that fosters progress. The result is a series of recommendations aimed at getting us back on track.
First, transportation funding should be immune to economic cycles. Infrastructure spending is often seen as superfluous in a time of fiscal constraint, but that narrative is disingenuous. Without continuous investment, our economy suffers and likelihood of ever getting away from times of fiscal constraint diminishes. Thus, it is precisely in these times of downturn that such outlays must be made.
Second, a public relations effort is warranted. President George H.W. Bush famously said that he had three main domestic priorities: “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The message resonated, support expanded, and as part of a broader initiative the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) soon followed. With the right public relations, the White House enacted transformative reform. A similar re-branding is called for today.
Third, we must reassess where and how we spend. A number of new funding mechanisms could be explored. Rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach, we could impose taxes based on vehicle weight. The heaviest vehicles do the most damage to roads. Thus, their operators should contribute proportionally. Technology affords similar opportunities to modernize. Instead of simply taxing the purchase of fuel, we could assess fees for vehicle miles travelled (VMT). This way, the money that goes into roads comes most directly from the people using them. Sensory technology gives us the ability to charge more during peak congestion hours. Traffic would decrease, average commutes would shorten, and economic productivity would go up, as people would spend less time sitting idle.
Fourth, non-governmental entities should be engaged. The private sector offers much-needed financing in a time of rising deficits. By embracing public-private partnerships, governments can fund and operate much-needed projects even at a time when the coffers have run dry. The infusion of private sector know-how can also increase efficiency and cut costs. An excellent example is the I-495 hot lanes spanning 14 miles of the D.C. beltway, which was subcontracted in part to Fluor-Transurban. In addition to reduced traffic congestion, construction eliminated 50 aging bridges and overpasses and upgraded ten interchanges.
With money and support secured, leaders should begin by addressing policies that are the lowest hanging fruit. One such proposal is to remove air traffic administration from the FAA’s purview. The U.S. is the only developed country where its aviation oversight authority has that responsibility. The inherent weakness in that structure was exposed in April 2013 when employee furloughs led to widespread delays.
A national freight plan also enjoys bipartisan support. America loses jobs when companies relocate to countries with stronger supply chains. We have to change the lagging status quo of our disjointed and disruptive system to ensure that we remain competitive.
These issues have the support of Democrats and Republicans, and it is important to address them both. But in the end, piecemeal solutions are just that. Ultimately, we need to enact policy broad enough in scope to match the size of the problem. And that cannot happen without strong, consistent stewardship from the White House.
To that end, President Obama has spoken publicly about wide-ranging aspirations. In his 2013 State of the Union Address, he took the rare step of highlighting a range of infrastructure needs. In 2014, he followed up by once again referencing our roads, ports, and widespread commute issues. In fact, he took the extra step of mentioning the use of executive orders to cut through the “red tape” holding up “key projects.”
While his focus on the issue is laudable, meaningful, sustainable change will require more than words and executive orders. A major legislative agenda must follow. Some have blamed his failure to that end on an increasingly polarized Congress. Yet, the great transportation presidents of the last century all faced adversity. The notion of a bygone golden age is a myth; transportation has rarely evaded the sphere of politics.
President H.W. Bush faced fierce opposition from public transit interests and the states in passing ISTEA. Likewise, President Johnson’s creation of the Department of Transportation did not go smoothly. He wanted the power to appoint the chair of the ICC, and Congress said no. In his own words: “in a few respects, this bill falls short of our original hopes.” As a former Senator, Johnson understood when to compromise, and in time the agency came to fruition.
President Eisenhower’s passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was perhaps the largest uphill battle of all. In hindsight, one assumes that plans for a national highway system would have enjoyed unanimous support. Not so. In fact, the seeds of Eisenhower’s bill went as far back as the Roosevelt (FDR) administration. The idea had lingered for decades. Eisenhower’s success was a triumph of compromise and presidential persistence.
That brings us to today. Administrations that place less emphasis on transportation coincide with times of inertia or even regression. We cannot afford that outcome at this critical moment in our history. President Obama needs to make this a personal priority and give it sustained attention. He must insert himself wherever possible by engaging congressional leaders and elevating the conversation in a way that draws in the American people.
In short, President Obama has to roll up his sleeves and answer the call head on. The nation requires bold leadership now more than ever.
Tony Lucadomo is a second year graduate student at the Frank Batten School, and a Graduate Researcher at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. He previously worked as a presidential campaign staffer and as a National Defense Fellow in the office of U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA).