We can't keep hitting the "Snooze" button on transportation
Click here for the full text of Secretary Foxx's remarks at the National Press Club on which this blog post is based.
Almost since my first day as Secretary of Transportation, I have been ringing the alarm bell about the looming insolvency of the highway trust fund --the federal source that helps pay for our nation's highways and transit.
Last week--after weeks and weeks of alarm, an online Highway Trust Fund ticker we've updated every month, an April bus tour, meetings with dozens of governors and mayors and stakeholders, and a lot of my own shoe leather on Capitol Hill-- the U.S. House passed a measure to avert the crisis with a ten-month patch. Later this week, the Senate is expected to take up a similar measure.
But let's not kid ourselves: this is a short-term patch, and if it passes, it's hard not to imagine that Congress will simply hit the snooze button on this issue the next time it rolls around.
Unless something changes, come May 2015, we are likely to be right back here again with the shot clock set to expire, looking for an easy solution to patch us for a few more months, and leaving the real conversation for another time.
I can hear them right now on Capitol Hill saying, “Gosh, we all know transportation is important. But we just can’t get there right now.”
Well, isn't anybody going to ask, "When can we get there?"
Today, and until Congress passes a long-term bill, I am urging the American people to join me and say, "No more delays. No more gimmicks. No more band-aids. Build our country, put us to work and give the next generation of Americans a chance to compete!"
Because if we are only building for the present, we're building for the past. We are, in effect, managing a declining system, a system that is crumbling, a system of growing potholes, a system that is creating longer and longer commute times, and a system that will cost us jobs we have no business losing.
The real danger is that our chronic underinvestment in transportation is starting to feel normal because we've been doing it so long. But every year, the cost of catching up grows more and more out of reach. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that, at current spending levels, we will fall $850 billion short of transportation needs nationally by just 2020. And every year, we're pushing the cost of that deficit forward onto our children and their children.
America needs more than incremental adjustment in transportation; we need a reset.
Abraham Lincoln was right; the American people are wise, and when we explain the facts to them, they make the right choices. You give them a choice between a temporary, imperfect, more expensive solution and a real, lasting and cheaper one, they’re going to take the latter.
A good, long-term bill, like the GROW AMERICA proposal we sent to Congress back in May or something like it, ought to be a layup. It ought to be easy. But when you ask your representative or Senators, they'll say, "We can't." Why? "Because we can't."
The idea that Congress cannot make a multiyear future-oriented transportation bill happen is one of the biggest self-fulfilling prophecies in American politics today, and it is killing transportation, one of the key building blocks of our economy.
So, here we are, on the eve of another patch, another short term measure, another cloud of uncertainty that will grow our infrastructure deficit and roll the drawbridge up a little more on future generations. Meanwhile, Congress is running out of mattresses, child seats, and rocks to look under to pay for transportation.
Americans know something's wrong. They're stuck in traffic. They have been patiently awaiting the new bypass or bridge project or transit line for years and years and years.
But unfortunately for them, they can't put their finger on who to hold accountable. There is no sign on their highways that says, "Your commute would be shorter if Congress acted."
It'll get even more confusing when they hear Congress passed a bipartisan measure to keep highway funding going. It will sound like a good thing, but if someone shows them the fine print, they'll know this fix is only temporary and doesn't address what's really broken. And they'll demand a real solution.
We need a moment of clarity, and that will not happen without the American people knowing the facts and raising their voices.
The good news is that it is starting to happen. We’ve got governors –30 of whom are Republicans– asking for a bill that lets them plan more than 10 months out. Last week, sixty-two associations –including the National Association of Manufacturers– joined together, calling on Congress for a long-term proposal.
And today, 11 of my predecessors and I have signed an open letter to Congress calling on them to pass a long-term solution. Together, I and former Secretaries LaHood, Peters, Mineta, Slater, Peña, Skinner, Card, Burnley, Dole, Coleman, and Boyd have served 35 years standing watch over our nation’s roads, rails, and subways. Five of us serving under Democratic presidents, seven under Republicans.
Right now, Washington is dictating outcomes to the American people. But in our democracy, it should work the other way. So we'll take this case to the American people and let them decide if the future is worth fighting for.
I think they'll say "yes" to a real transportation solution. Because from Lincoln's transcontinental railroad to Eisenhower's interstate highway system, we have always been a “yes” country, not a “no” country.
We are not a nation that treads water or goes backwards; we're a nation that moves forward.