Getting Transportation Back on Track

President Obama signed a declaration making this National Transportation Week. “Our roads, rails, runways and shipyards have formed the foundation for a thriving global marketplace, and our transportation networks have enabled our first responders and service members to react with speed and efficiency during crisis,” the declaration reads.

As part of TranspoWeek, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) highlighted some key numbers:

  • The $120 billion in transportation construction in 2010 was more than spent in the following industries: auto repair, advertising, farming, movie, and airplane manufacturing.
  • There are 4,048,525 center-line miles of public roads, 603,250 bridges, 171,500 miles of track operated by freight railroads, more than 13,700 airports, 12,000 miles of inland waterways, and 8,100 miles of subway and commuter rail tracks.

On its website, ARTBA also displays a so-called transportation gridlock clock, counting-down the number of days since the last federal surface transportation law was enacted. We're now up to 958 days and counting!

It's shocking to think that after all this time the transportation bill remains at a standstill in Congress. With the current federal surface transportation law set to expire on June 30, Congress must pass new legislation to fund investments in our nation's transportation infrastructure -- roads, bridges, rails, runways and ports. As my colleague Deron Lovaas explained, there's a lot at stake.

When No One Pays into Transportation We ALL Pay

Consider the fiscal crunch we're facing. The federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax hasn’t budged since 1993. Cities and states suffering economically cannot keep up with aging transportation infrastructure or funding public transport, thus leading to layoffs and reduced services.

It seems that no one wants to pay for transportation improvements. Problem is: we are all paying the cost each and every day that we don’t fund them.

If roads are not maintained properly, vehicles suffer costly wear and tear. As the nation’s dams and bridges age, a breech could result in devastating consequences including loss of life and property. And, if we fail to invest in upkeep and improvements in public transportation that is funded by the gas tax, we will never move past the costs of our oil dependence.

“Energy independence for the United States is an admirable goal, but even if the U.S. were to produce enough oil to meet our demand, the domestic price is still set on the global market, meaning a potential supply disruption anywhere can impact the price of oil everywhere,” said Herb Kelleher, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Southwest Airlines and member of the Energy Security Leadership Council, a project of Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), which released a report last week on The New American Oil Boom.

Or as Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) recently put it: “Every barrel of oil that we avoid using in the U.S. transportation sector makes our economy stronger, not to mention our personal pocketbooks, and less vulnerable to the volatility of the current marketplace. … The long-term solution to the challenge of high and volatile oil prices is to continue to reduce our dependence on oil, period."

Clearly, a better, balanced and more modern national transportation system will help us move beyond oil. 

Not Investing in Transportation Means Getting Nowhere Fast, Yet Paying More for the Ride

If your wallet looks thinner lately, some of these recently reported reasons might be the culprits:

  • Every licensed U.S. driver shells out an average of $324 per year for using more fuel, body dents, worn tires, premature wear, and pitted roads according to The Road Information Program, a Washington-based research group. In essense, this means drivers pay a secret road tax in $15 billion for car repair annually
  • Less funding to transportation projects means lost jobs in those sectors. There are 20,000 fewer jobs in transport operations now than there were one year ago, according to the latest U.S. jobs report.
  • If you live in a ciy like Pittsburgh or Boston, you are paying more to get where you need to go on public transport because of higher fares. A 23% fare increase was approved in Boston last month, and Pittsburgh not only faces fare increases but also a 35 percent cut in services; this in a city where 20 percent of workers use transit to get to work.

Rep. Peter Defazio (D-Ore.), who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, pointed out in a recent opinion piece that the United States spends less than 1% of its gross domestic product on transportation investments, compared to China at 9% and even India at 5%. He says 140,000 bridges in the federal system are in need of substantial rehabilitation and the transit systems have a $70 billion backlog of critical infrastructure investment for buses, subways and light rail.

“Investing in our infrastructure is something that members of both political parties have always supported…. There is no reason why we can’t do this. There is no reason why the world’s best infrastructure should lie beyond our borders,” said President Obama when he joined with the authors of a University of Virginia Miller Center of Public Affairs report detailing practical ways to invest in transportation infrastructure. The report is titled, Are We There Yet? Selling America on Transportation, and was authored by five former U.S. transportation secretaries and dozens of the nation’s top transportation thinkers. (My colleague Deron also blogged this report -- natch.)

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, every billion dollars invested in transportation infrastructure creates or sustains more than 34,000 jobs and produces $6.2 billion in economic activity.

Moreover, another reason to invest in expanding transportation choices is the fact that in the face of high gas prices more and more people opt to use public transit as a way to save money, according to a joint study by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and Building America’s Future (BAF). [Take Chicago, for example, where “[h]igh gas prices do tend to help us increase ridership,” according to Metra spokesman Michael Gillis.] The APTA/BAF study found that gas price increases lead to a modest decrease in driving, but lead to big gains in transit ridership that are sustained even when gas prices return to previous levels.

Congress Should Do its Job so Transportation Can Create Jobs

Federal transportation legislation is essentially one big jobs bill and currently the best opportunity to put Americans to work fixing and improving our nation's highways, bridges and transit systems. So why won't Congress simply pass it?

Right now, the Senate and House are negotiating the transportation bill in a conference committee. NRDC urges legislators to adopt the Senate version, which is a balanced, bi-partisan bill that passed by a wide margin of 74-22. However, the House is pushing to adopt its controversial version, which is simply another temporary extension of the current law that also contains unrelated “poison pill” measures. These include expedited approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, provisions to block stronger coal ash regulations, and to drastically weaken landmark (NEPA) environmental protections -- once again proving that House Republican leadership is intent on hijacking a must-pass bill in order to advance an extreme anti-environmental agenda.

The House should be working on a thoughtful transportation policy that could actually become law -- not playing games by loading misguided and destructive measures onto an overdue and critically needed transportation bill. We need a balanced transportation policy and forward-looking, innovative energy policy.

President Obama has threatened to veto any transportation bill that circumvents his rejection of the Keystone tar sands pipeline. It’s time to end the gridlock caused by senseless partisanship in Congress and put Americans back to work by passing a clean, balanced transportation bill.

So the clock keeps ticking. It's time for members of Congress to do their job so we can keep the economy moving. The simplest, smartest way to do that is for the congressional conference committee to reach consensus on passing the Senate transportation bill. Tell Congress to get moving.