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Municipal Forum of New York Luncheon on January 30, 2012

Secretary Ray LaHood

--Remarks as Prepared--

Municipal Forum of New York Luncheon
New York City, New York
Monday, January 30, 2012

Good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you, Ned Flynn, for that wonderful introduction.  And thank you, all, for the warm welcome.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to start by reading the words of an American icon from another time.  And I’m quoting here:

One of America’s great material blessings is the outstanding network of roads and highways that spreads across this vast continent. Freedom of travel and the romance of the road are vital parts of our heritage. They also form a vital commercial artery unequaled anywhere else in the world.

The passage goes on:

But let's face it: Time and wear have taken their toll. So, I'm asking the Congress to approve a new highway program.  It will stimulate 170,000 jobs, not in make-work projects but in real, worthwhile work in the hard-hit construction industries, and an additional 150,000 jobs in related industries.

As a result, the speaker concluded:

We will be preserving for future generations of Americans a highway system that has long been the envy of the world.

Now, since none of you will correctly guess the orator’s identity, I’ll just tell you whose words these are.  They’re Republican President Ronald Reagan’s.

And he spoke them on November 27, 1982 – only 40 days before he made the Surface Transportation Assistance Act into the law of the land.  That’s how quickly the American people’s business used to get done.

So, here we are today – three decades later – and these same American roads, bridges, and transit systems are in greater need of repair than ever before.

The fact is: We face a crisis in this country. Our citizens are struggling amidst some of the worst economic conditions of our lifetimes.   And our transportation systems are overburdened and fast becoming obsolete.

Think about the reality I deal with every single day as transportation secretary.

America’s roads are so choked with congestion that the average commuter spends 242 percent more time stuck in traffic than when President Reagan signed that surface transportation bill in January, 1983.  This drains $100 billion in wasted fuel and lost productivity from our economy annually.  That’s as much as the United States spent on R&D for the entire Apollo Space Program, adjusted for inflation.

At the same time, bridges are crumbling beneath our wheels. More than one in four of America’s bridges are substandard – including an astonishing 12 percent that are structurally deficient.  That’s 68,858 bridges that, while safe to drive on, are nearing the end of their intended life-spans.

Our aviation system is reaching its capacity, too.  The United States is now home to the world’s worst air traffic congestion. A quarter of our flights arrive more than 15 minutes late.  And our national average for delayed flights is twice that of Europe.

Meanwhile, compare this to transportation systems around the globe.

The Chinese just opened the world’s longest bridge – long enough to cross the English Channel with six miles to spare.  They’re also paving tens of thousands of miles of expressway.  By the end of the decade, they’ll surpass the United States in total highway distance.  And the Port of Shanghai now moves more container traffic every year than the seven top U.S. ports combined.

Or think about this: In the fourteen countries with true high-speed rail, passengers can ride a total of more than 15,000 miles at speeds faster than 220 miles-per-hour.  In the United States, they can ride exactly zero.

This just about sums it up: As recently as 2005, the World Economic Forum ranked America’s infrastructure the best in the world. Today, we aren’t even in the top ten.

What’s more, while it may feel like we’re saving a few bucks by doing nothing, the long term costs of inaction are staggering.  One recent report estimates that our poor infrastructure shaves .2 percentage points off our GDP every year.  Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and others conducted a study that said our deferred maintenance adds $175 billion to our national deficit annually. By 2035, our bill for deferred transportation maintenance will be someplace in the neighborhood of $5 trillion.  Just for comparison’s sake, that’s roughly the size of Japan’s entire economy.

Of course, this all is taking place at a time when millions of Americans are looking for their jobs back.  Many more are struggling to make ends meet as they work fewer hours for less pay.

This is more than an economic problem.  This is an opportunity we’re wasting.

But there is good news on the horizon.  In the United States Senate, Senator Boxer and Senator Inhoff drafted a bipartisan transportation jobs bill.  It was voted out of committee by an 18-to-zero margin.  In the United States House of Representatives, Chairman Mica is introducing a bipartisan transportation jobs bill of his own.  I believe we’ll see progress on it soon.

And, by the way, I also believe we’re close to a long-term FAA bill – and we’re already making significant advances toward a NextGen air traffic control system that reduces travel times and cuts delays.

There’s good reason for this progress.  There’s no such thing as a Democratic or Republican road or bridge – and there’s no such thing as a Democratic or Republican job repairing them when they’re crumbling or in danger of falling down.

Our infrastructure belongs to all of us. It’s more than the way we get from one place to another; it’s the way we lead our lives and pursue our dreams.  And, furthermore, job-creation should be everyone’s number one priority.

That’s why, when I was in Congress, the House passed America’s last two transportation bills with 417 votes in 2005 and 337 votes in 1998 – true shows of bipartisanship.  And that’s why, last Tuesday, President Obama laid out his blueprint for “an America that’s built to last”: a plan to bolster American manufacturing, expand American energy production, and equip American workers to seize the opportunities of tomorrow; a plan to create jobs on transportation projects; a plan to make certain that businesses and families have the safest, fastest, most efficient ways to connect with opportunity.

Here’s what you need to know about President Obama’s blueprint.

First – At this make-or-break moment for the middle class, President Obama proposed a six year transportation jobs bill – not so very different from the one President Reagan proposed a generation ago.

So, you may ask: How do we pay for it?  Well, President Obama wants to take the money that we’re saving from winding down our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the other half on a six-year transportation bill that lets American workers do some nation-building right here at home.

Let me be crystal clear.  America’s last transportation bill expired 852 days ago.  Congress has passed no fewer than eight short term measures to keep our nation’s transportation program in business.  Now, President Obama has put forward a simple, common-sense plan to put people back to work on transportation projects over six years – and a simple, common-sense plan to pay the bill.   I hope you’ll join the president in pushing Congress to get this done for the American people.

Second – We know that waste, inefficiency, and bureaucracy can sometimes slow the process of selecting projects, hiring contractors and workers, and getting shovels in the ground.  That’s why President Obama also announced that, within the coming weeks, he will sign an executive order slashing red tape.  This way we can fast-track transportation projects through review and permitting – and, most importantly, get workers on jobsites more quickly.  For our part, last fall, the Department of Transportation picked six to start with – including replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Third – Because we want American workers filling 21st century transportation jobs, President Obama called on us to reward companies that do work here in the United States – which we’re doing through our strong commitment to “Buy America” requirements.  He also called on us to train a world-class American workforce that’s ready and able to perform the tens of thousands of transportation jobs that will be available in the coming years.  We need a pipeline of engineers, planners, and technicians – of drivers, mechanics, and machinists.

And finally – We all know that we can’t rebuild our country on a credit card.  That means we have to ask people who have done extremely well during the last decade or two to kick in a little more.

We don’t begrudge financial success in this country.  We admire it. But we also know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other – and to their country’s future.

This is about priorities and choices.    Should we repair those 69,000 worn out bridges or keep tax loopholes for oil companies?  Should we hire construction workers to build a national high-speed rail network that connects 80 percent of Americans or let billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries?

But this is about values, too.  You heard President Obama talk about it the other night.  We all share an obligation to ensure that America, once again, is a place where everyone gets a fair shot, where everyone does their fair share, and where everyone plays by the same set of rules.

So, let me close by saying this.  All those years ago, when President Reagan signed his transportation jobs bill into law, he said that America could, once again, quote:

ensure for our children a special part of their heritage – a network of highways and mass transit that has enabled our commerce to thrive, our country to grow, and our people to roam freely and easily to every corner of our land.

Our transportation system is a special part of our heritage.  In the 20th century, the people of New York and New Jersey joined together, dreamed big, and built big things: The Lincoln Tunnel; the George Washington Bridge; our subways, airports, and countless other marvels of infrastructure.

Pause for a moment.  Imagine what our lives would have been like without them.

American workers dreamed these things up. American workers wielded the shovels, forged the iron, laid the tracks, and poured the concrete that brought these things to life.  American workers passed these things on to us – their children and grandchildren.  And, yes, American workers paid the taxes that were necessary to finance these investments in their tomorrows.

They sacrificed so their neighbors would have jobs, so their businesses would flourish, so all of us would reap the benefits of living in the best country in the world.

This was America’s recipe for success.  This was the way we took responsibility for the future.  This is President Obama’s recipe for doing big things once again.  And this is the mission of this administration: Keeping the American promise alive and passing it on to our kids and grandkids.

So, I’m here today to deliver a simple message:  Think about the America that is within our reach.  All across this country, there are workers ready to roll up their sleeves and get back on construction jobsites.  All across this country, there is work to be done on important transportation projects.  And it’s not too late for America to do the right thing.  Now is the time to connect the people who need work with the work we need to do.

Together, let’s put people back to work making a transportation system that’s “the envy of the world,” just to borrow a phrase from President Reagan.  And together, let’s make an America that’s built to last.

With that, I’ll be happy to take your questions.  Thank you all very much.

Updated: Monday, March 2, 2015
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