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Oh, Congress, Where Art Thou?

By Clifford F. Lynch

DC Velocity, September 2008

In March, I wrote about Transportation for Tomorrow, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commissionís recently released report, and my (and othersí) disappointment in its failure to deliver a draft of a national transportation policy. In my opinion, without a clear vision and clearly stated goals, we simply cannot formulate infrastructure or energy strategies, develop tactics for executing those strategies, or intelligently discuss how the necessary improvements will be funded.

As recently as early July, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters was still advocating private investment in our highway infrastructure. Whatever happened to the governmentís commitment and responsibility to aid in the development of highways Ė and, indeed, the entire transportation infrastructure? The National Transportation Policy contained in the Transportation Act of 1940 was quite clear in this regard. Among other provisions, it stated that the federal government was "Öto cooperate with the several States, and the duly authorized officials thereof; Öall to the end of developing, coordinating, and preserving a national transportation system by water, highway, and rail as well as other means, adequate to meet the needs of the commerce of the United States, of the Postal Service, and of the national defense."

The first two decades following the actís passage saw some progress on that front. In 1954, the current system of interstate highways was conceived. And on June 29, 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act was signed into law by President Eisenhower, who had earlier told Congress, "Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods."

More than 50 years later, we have yet to achieve the goal of "easy transportation." Instead, we seem to be operating in a state of total confusion.

To the readers of this column, the issues are well known Ė a deteriorating, 50-year-old highway system; inadequate rail structure; disintegrating locks on the Mississippi River; dangerous bridges; an ailing airline industry; and all the associated problems. And to top it all off, we have the rapidly dwindling Highway Trust Fund, which is projected to run a deficit of $3 billion by the end of 2009. This being an election year, I was hopeful that we might see a flurry of activity. And we have, but it appears to be the same old political rhetoric. We are trying to treat symptoms instead of the disease.

A May-to September moratorium on the federal gas tax was suggested, but in a less-than-timely July decision, Congress decided we could not afford to deplete the trust fund and put road and bridge construction jobs in jeopardy. It was a rather weak idea, anyway.

House Transportation Committee chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) has said his committee is working on the next highway bill; but if itís anything like previous bills, it will be more conspicuous by its "earmarks" than by anything remotely resembling a national transportation policy. The 2005 bill contained a record 6,376 "special interest projects," most of which did little to help shore up the basic infrastructure.

I have never been a political activist, but I have become convinced that this problem will not be solved until our industry rises up and demands a master plan for the country. During the 110th Congress, the House Transportation Committee has reported out six pieces of transportation legislation, all of which address narrow issues and can by no means be considered part of a total strategy.

Just for fun, since itís an election year and we have politics on our minds, letís give the political process a try. Why donít we all e-mail our representatives and senators and suggest the novel idea of developing a sound policy and plan before they plunge further into transportation legislation?

 

 

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