President must be in driver’s seat to improve nation’s infrastructure

During his annual State of the Union address, President Obama made the case to Congress that greater investment in our nation’s transportation infrastructure is vital to employment growth.

In his words: “first-class jobs gravitate to first-class infrastructure.” This marked the fifth consecutive address where the president has called for greater infrastructure investment. Many presidents have chosen not to expend precious political capital on transportation policy. But for those who have, determined leadership has often yielded success. And with the right course of action, this president can succeed as well.

America’s infrastructure crisis is widely recognized by policymakers. Furthermore, Democrats and Republicans from within the transportation community have agreed on the major problems — and many of the solutions — for decades. Yet our elected leaders remain mired in a state of chronic inertia. Meanwhile, the social and economic costs continue to climb, and America falls further behind.

As in times past, only strong and sustained presidential leadership will break the impasse.

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Last year, we gathered at the biennial David R. Goode National Transportation Policy Conference, convened by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, to construct a blueprint for presidential leadership. We examined how previous presidents succeeded in achieving major transportation reform and what lessons of history can be applied to the present challenge.

Today, we offer three such lessons worthy of his attention.

First, new and innovative funding mechanisms must be developed that meet the needs of today and tomorrow. Under President Dwight Eisenhower’s leadership, the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act established a new model for funding the interstate system: the Highway Trust Fund. This fund, a fresh approach at the time, called for a gas tax of 3 cents per gallon. The proceeds were designated solely for Interstate and other highway projects.

While novel in 1956, this model is no longer sufficient. If we desire a 21st century infrastructure, we must also develop a 21st century funding model. Such a model must leverage new and emerging technologies to fund projects in a more effective way. Finding a sufficient and sustainable revenue stream would have a transformative effect on American competitiveness.

Second, to build momentum for broader reform, the president should seize on ideas that enjoy bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. In the spring of 1966, President Lyndon Johnson sent legislation to Congress establishing the Department of Transportation. The bill admittedly fell short of what the president envisioned for the DOT. However, bipartisan support for a different version of the department had welled in Congress. Johnson, acutely aware of the value of legislative compromise, backed the new measure.

Bipartisan opportunities exist in Washington today. For instance, a special panel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee recently released its report on improving the nation’s freight transportation. Its recommendations enjoy bipartisan support. And a group of 25 House Democrats and 25 House Republicans have co-sponsored the Partnership to Build America bill which would capitalize a fund devoted to infrastructure improvements. The president should take advantage of such opportunities to advance a broader dialogue on transportation policy.

And third, Obama must change the narrative. President George H.W. Bush secured passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, in the wake of a painful recession, with a simple message attuned to the political rhythms of the day: “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Through this narrative, the public understood that infrastructure was not just about roads and bridges, but rather a driver of job creation, and more broadly, economic growth and global competitiveness.

Likewise, Obama must connect strong infrastructure with these larger national goals. Transportation is often seen as a local issue and infrastructure spending viewed as superfluous in times of fiscal constraint. Yet, sound infrastructure investments can mitigate many of the challenges foremost on the minds of the American people today.

Admittedly, the environment for political action is not ideal. With the wounds of the government shutdown fresh, fiscal restraint still an article of faith, and with the 2014 midterm election cycle in full swing, partisanship is high. Yet, the great transportation presidents of the 20th century all faced adversity. While we like to assume that past presidents dealt with a kinder and gentler political climate, the truth is that transportation politics has rarely evaded the “sturm und drang” we see today.

The lessons of history are clear. Administrations that place less emphasis on transportation coincide with times of stasis or even regression. Determined presidential leadership can yield results.

In the long evolution of the global economy, we are in the midst of fulcrum years. The economic prospects of tomorrow are being determined by the choices we make today. America cannot afford to stand still. Infrastructure is fundamental to that conversation, and the president must lead that dialogue.

Burnley served as the Reagan administration secretary of Transportation from 1987 to 1989. Card served as the George H. W. Bush administration secretary of Transportation from 1992 to 1993, and as White House chief of staff for President George W. Bush. Mineta served as the George W. Bush administration secretary of Transportation from 2001 to 2006, the Clinton administration secretary of Commerce and a member of the House of Representatives (D-Calif.) from 1975 to 1995. Peters served as the George W. Bush administration secretary of Transportation from 2006 to 2009. Skinner served as the George H.W. Bush administration secretary of Transportation from 1989 to 1991 and as White House chief of staff for President George H.W. Bush. Slater served as the Clinton administration secretary of Transportation from 1997 to 2001.