The sea of red ink and what it could mean to our country’s future is now dominating the national psyche. We can all go to a website and literally watch our national debt grow – every second – by amounts that we have trouble grasping.
The imperative to change the trajectory of our debt burden is clear. A recent national poll shows that nearly 60 percent of Americans prefer reducing debt even if that slows economic recovery. It is the job of our elected leaders, however, to carry deficit reduction out in a responsible manner that does not threaten the basic underpinnings of our economy.
One of the basic underpinnings of the economy is our transportation infrastructure. A national business coalition led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is imploring the federal government to recognize this basic fact and act accordingly. Their message is plain: “If We Can’t Move It, We Can’t Make It.”
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global competitiveness report 2010-2011, the quality of the United States’ infrastructure has plummeted compared to other nations over the past decade. In 2000, the U.S. ranked seventh in the overall quality of its infrastructure. The most recent report now ranks the U.S. 23rd, behind France, Germany, Canada, Japan and others.
Historically, transportation has been a nonpartisan issue in this country. Both parties understood that a well maintained transportation infrastructure is the building block upon which all other elements of the economy rest. Today both parties talk about the importance of transportation but neither side walks the walk. President Obama has offered a plan which calls for increased transportation investment but offers no tangible way to fund it. Congressman John Mica and the Republicans also laud the importance of transportation, while they propose a six-year bill that will slash funding by more than thirty percent.
Make no mistake. This is not a debate about whether to “stimulate” the economy. Too many people have become mired in this argument regarding the true economic benefit of putting people to work today to maintain and upgrade our transportation infrastructure.
The real question is whether we are going to allow our failing roads, airports, transit systems, rails, bridges and ports to act as a cap on economic activity for the foreseeable future. Because, perpetuating the inefficient flow of goods and people is in fact placing such a cap on our economy – one that will also limit the amount of tax revenue generated to fund other important government functions.
Our history is dotted with key points where a president and congress prioritized transportation investment during very difficult times. With a civil war waging that depleted the treasury; Abraham Lincoln never relented on building a transcontinental railroad. Despite tremendous rancor, Theodore Roosevelt was not to be deterred in building the Panama Canal. Dwight Eisenhower will forever be remembered as the President with the vision and conviction to push forward the Interstate Highway System. Ronald Reagan successfully fought for doubling the federal gas tax in order to invest in our transportation infrastructure as the nation was in the midst of recession.
We all know there are areas of the federal budget that are going to need to be cut in order to rectify our deficit woes. Transportation investment is not one of them.
-- Thompson is executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.