Government must take lead on infrastructure

The federal government has always played a role in building our nation’s transportation networks — and our nation’s economic growth demands that role continue. In the 19th century, we saw the economic potential of an interconnected nation, and the federal government created the incentives for railroads to connect the coasts. In the 20th century, national security demanded that we upgrade our highways, and the federal government created the Interstate Highway System that forever changed forever the American landscape. We also created a world-class system of airports to usher in the jet age. In the 21st century, we need to make the same bold investment in transportation to meet our national security, economic and environmental needs.

Too often, we only think about our transportation system when it fails us — traffic congestion, delayed planes, missed connections. As business travelers know, some days every part of the system fails us to get us where we need to be. But, we must remember, millions travel on our highways, through the skies and on the rails to work, to visit family and friends and just to travel. More and more every day, the system is creaking under the stress of more and more users.

I believe that nothing is more important to our economic future than transportation. America’s transportation infrastructure is responsible for the flow of goods through our country by highways, freight rail and air. Simply put, it is the driver that continues to fuel our export-driven economy.

But our transportation infrastructure is old, crumbling and in too many places obsolete. If we don’t make the necessary investments now, we threaten the safety of the users, hurt our global competitiveness and miss an opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs.

We all agree that the lack of resources for transportation is a problem. For too long, we’ve deferred tough decisions on how to deal with our aging transportation system and how to spend our scarce funding resources. We’ll only begin to address the problem if we look at all options to increase funding and spur private investment. I recently introduced a bill that creates an infrastructure fund to look at new financing options. We know that millions of dollars in private capital are parked on the sidelines. An infrastructure fund would leverage federal dollars to encourage private investment and begin to meet our infrastructure needs.

And, this fund doesn’t discriminate. It would provide financial assistance to eligible projects across all forms of transportation: rail lines, marine ports, airports, highways, bridges, pipelines and public transportation. Investment in infrastructure has lagged recently and we’ve developed a backlog of projects we need to finance to meet the needs of our country.

Not only are our funding streams from a different era, our planning and thinking about transportation doesn’t reflect what our country needs: a strategic, long-term vision for rebuilding our transportation system.

Last Congress, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and I introduced a bill to create a coherent and unified mission for our federal surface transportation programs. Much of the agenda we set out to achieve still resonates with our current policy woes. It laid out goals to develop a transportation network that promotes interstate commerce while increasing the efficient movement of people and goods.

In the next two years of chairing the Senate Commerce Committee, I plan to focus on moving this discussion forward. The bottom line is the federal government must take a leadership role to coordinate planning an upgraded transportation system that will serve our commuter and commercial needs for the next century.

To put it bluntly, our transportation system is inadequate and will hold us back economically if we don’t take steps to address its shortcomings.

Those of us who care about transportation must be willing to fight for and fix this broken system. We must make the tough choices that serve our country over the long term — not just for the next election cycle.

Americans deserve to know what they are getting when they commit to investing in our transportation system, and I believe they’re willing to pay for it as long as they know their money will be used wisely.

Our transportation system was once the envy of the world. We can restore its preeminence, but it will require smart policies and strategic investments that American taxpayers are primed to support.
Rockefeller is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.