Thank you, Rabih, for that wonderful introduction. Kathy and I are delighted to be here among friends and honored guests. But if you’ll allow, I’d like to recognize one special person in the audience: Jim Kabbara. Jim is an aerospace engineer, and a much respected colleague, at the Federal Aviation Administration – and he had the bright idea that I should speak tonight. So, if my remarks disappoint, just blame him.
Seriously, I am honored to join so many smart people on the front lines of shaping America’s engineering and architectural future – especially those of you who are helping to re-imagine and re-build America’s transportation infrastructure. President Obama has made investment in our roadways, railways, waterways, and airports a centerpiece of his administration’s agenda. But he and I both know -- and appreciate -- that the brain trust behind our efforts is gathering right here.
Now, I understand the theme this evening is “building bridges to a brighter future.” So I thought I would talk for just a moment about how we in the Obama administration are doing exactly that.
Last week, I had the chance to travel to Nevada and dedicate a new bridge that bypasses the narrow, two-lane road atop the Hoover Dam. It’s a marvel of 21st century engineering – the longest bridge of its kind in the Western Hemisphere – resting on the tallest precast concrete columns ever constructed. And when you stare up at this awesome sight – almost 1,000 feet above the ground; spanning across the “Eighth Wonder of the World” – you can’t help but be inspired. You can’t help but think: Americans can still build great things not just in spite of enormous economic challenges, but as the means of overcoming them.
Seven decades ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt found reason to declare that one-third of the nation was “ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.” At a time when Americans needed jobs – and jobs needed doing – he set a New Deal into motion that put millions of people to work building their country. You can still see the results: Streets, sidewalks, parks, grand public spaces, beautiful works of art and literature, the Hoover Dam.
Today, the United States again faces sizeable economic and infrastructure challenges. President Obama has prevented our economy from plunging into another Great Depression. But too many of our families, friends, and neighbors are out of work. Too much of our infrastructure is overburdened and outdated. So, President Obama developed an economic plan that takes on both these problems at once – a plan that invests in America’s infrastructure as the means of laying a new foundation for economic opportunity and prosperity.
The Recovery Act – the most significant public works program since President Roosevelt’s New Deal – was step one. It’s financed almost 15,000 transportation projects – in every state of the union. It’s improving 40,000 miles of roadways. And it’s connecting 80 percent of Americans with a high-speed rail network within 25 years.
Through these investments, we’ve already produced or protected hundreds of thousands of jobs – 3.3 million during the second quarter alone. These aren’t our figures. They come from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
But we also know that nearly one in five construction workers are still unemployed at a time when so many of the roads and bridges we use every day have fallen into disrepair. That’s why, on Labor Day, President Obama unveiled his vision for the future of America’s transportation system – starting with a $50 billion upfront investment in these very roads and bridges. He committed to rebuilding 150,000 additional miles of pavement; laying and maintaining 4,000 miles of track; restoring 150 miles of runways; putting in place a next generation air-traffic control system that will reduce travel time and delays; and establishing a national infrastructure bank. President Obama’s plan will bring jobs to our economy now. It will be fully paid for.
But President Obama’s vision also reflects a fundamental recognition: Daring architectural and engineering projects don’t just solve today’s problems. They support tomorrow’s possibilities. In America’s first century, we carved the Erie Canal and connected the coasts with the transcontinental railroad. In our second century, we built our interstate highways and the bridges, tunnels, and subways that are still the lifelines of our economy.
Each succeeding American generation has demonstrated the foresight and courage to invest in the most important infrastructure projects of their time – the projects that make America the greatest country in the world; the projects that make America possible. We can do no less – whether it’s a major tunnel linking New Jersey to New York, a national high speed rail system that revitalizes our cities, or a beautiful bridge across the Hoover Dam.
You know, when we look back at history, it’s easy to feel like America’s ascent was inevitable. But that was anything but the case. Progress was only made possible by the imagination, toil, and sacrifice of generations that came before.
So, architects and engineers, my message for you is simple: Your responsibility is to think about our future; to draft the blueprint for our tomorrow; to mentor our next generation of engineers and architects; to make a “more perfect union” for our kids and grandkids.
We can still dream big. We can still build big. We can once again make this nation’s infrastructure the envy of the world.
Thank you very much.