Efficient transportation system is crucial to economy, way of life

Transportation is the lifeblood of the American economy and our way of life. An efficient national transportation network allows businesses to lower transportation costs, which in turn lowers production costs and costs to consumers. It allows American businesses to be competitive in the global marketplace and for our economy to prosper and grow.

Our national transportation system also binds us together. As former President Eisenhower observed, without the unifying force of transportation, “we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.”

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The truth of this statement was borne out early in our nation’s history. The Articles of Confederation failed because they provided no means for Congress to regulate commerce between the states. This weakness was underscored by a dispute between Maryland and Virginia regarding navigation rights on the Potomac River, which prohibited the nation from ensuring a coordinated system of canals and portage roads across the Allegheny Mountains.

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations, argued the three essential duties of government are to provide security, preserve justice and erect and maintain public works to facilitate commerce. Our Founding Fathers also understood the important role of the national government in carrying out these responsibilities. They wisely remedied the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation by directing Congress, in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, to establish post roads and to regulate interstate commerce. In doing so they laid the groundwork for connecting the country through trade and travel and recognized the critical role of an efficient, robust infrastructure network.

Since that time, there has been a clear and consistent federal role and a national interest in developing, maintaining and supporting the vital transportation infrastructure that connects American consumers, manufacturers and farmers to domestic and world markets. From the Transcontinental Railroad to the Panama Canal to the Interstate Highway System, Congress has continued to invest in infrastructure to ensure the connectivity of the nation and to support the needs of the American economy and the American people.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is continuing that work in the 113th Congress. As one of our first orders of business, the committee is taking the lead in promoting legislation to address our nation’s port and waterway infrastructure needs through a Water Resources Development Act.

Improving waterways and coastal ports for commerce, navigation and national security is the most federal of infrastructure responsibilities. Among the very first acts of the first Congress of the United States was to authorize the construction of navigation improvements, such as lighthouses, at the new nation’s harbors. Nearly 200 years ago, Congress authorized improvements to be made on the Ohio River to facilitate navigation to the west and the newly acquired Mississippi Valley.

The channels, locks and dams and other infrastructure that support our maritime and waterways transportation system are vitally important to a healthy national economy.

The contributions of this infrastructure today are staggering. Nearly one-third of our gross domestic product is derived from international trade, the bulk of which is waterborne. More than $3.8 billion worth of goods move in and out of U.S. seaports each day, generating $200 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue each year. The U.S. maritime industry provides 13 million jobs. More than 60 percent of America’s grain exports move by barge along our inland waterways, accounting for $8.5 billion in exports each year.

Our inland waterways and seaports link our nation directly to the global economy. They are critical components of our transportation network, but the system is only as effective as the quality of the infrastructure. We will remain competitive only if we can get our goods to market through efficient transportation.

Ensuring a sound infrastructure network is a shared responsibility, with a strong federal role recognized by the Founding Fathers. By working together and building consensus on what is best for our transportation systems, we can continue to promote competitiveness, prosperity and economic growth for the future of our nation.

Shuster is chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.