Transportation Report: Ideology, not need, too often drives policy

This summer, we don’t have to look too hard for reminders of how integral transportation is to our daily lives and our economic future. Between rising gas prices, traffic congestion on weekend road trips, and high temperatures that are in part the result of global carbon pollution, it’s clear to us every day that our transportation network is critical to our way of life, the economy and our prosperity. We have all benefited from the transportation investments past generations made to enable our economy to function.

Unfortunately, subsequent generations have chosen to take those assets for granted while missing too many opportunities to lay the foundation for the next 100 years. Now, we have to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity, assert federal leadership and forge a new transportation bill that reflects our nation’s 21st-century needs and priorities by setting the roadmap for national transportation policy.

For too long, national transportation policy has not been focused on need. Instead ideologically driven policies have suffocated our existing network of transit, reducing our ability to move cheaply, quickly and with limited carbon pollution. The lack of coordination, leadership and comprehensive vision has been striking. It created a federal policy that operates in segments (or “silos,” in policy lingo). Too often instead of solving problems, this approach has created new ones. It is time we broke free from the traditional geographic fights and instead invested in solutions that could meet our policy goals as a nation.

We need a fresh start that offers solid, workable solutions to address our extraordinary needs, and maintain, operate and upgrade our assets.

I represent a densely populated corridor state that does not have the luxury of putting off decisions on how to grow sustainably. For years we have been dealing with a transportation system bursting at the seams. As a result, we have had to think creatively about the use of transit, freight rail, buses and even ferries to keep the flow of commerce moving smoothly.

As chairman of the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Affairs, I am hoping to apply the lessons we have learned in New Jersey and work with committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) to help craft a strong transportation bill. As the committee of jurisdiction for public transit, we are mindful that the previous administration seemed more concerned about transit justifying its existence rather trying to make transit flourish. The new bill must unleash transit because it is something that we understand is central to meet many of our nation’s core policy goals, including rebuilding the economy, creating jobs, fostering smart growth, increasing property values, ending our dependence on foreign oil and reducing carbon pollution.

Within his first month in office, President Obama signaled his strong commitment to infrastructure by delivering a record level of funding in a strong stimulus package that is already creating jobs and helping our economy recover. Congress needs to partner with the president to deliver ample funding in a robust authorization bill that recalibrates federal transportation, that is driven by data and performance in order to bring our transit network in line with the needs of our time. The initiative must have a focus on performance-based outcomes with accountability and objective metrics so we can methodically judge the results to see what is working and what is not. By changing the status quo, we will produce a cohesive and integrated approach that is cost-effective and uses the strengths our transportation infrastructure provides to propel our economy, through the 21st century and beyond.

Menendez is chairman of the Housing, Transportation and Community Development Subcommittee of the Senate Banking Committee.