Investing in our infrastructure is the road to better safety, new jobs

But this transportation infrastructure is old, crumbling and on the verge of disrepair. If we don’t make the necessary investments now, we will imperil lives, hurt our global competitiveness and miss an opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs. 

A second-rate transportation system is not just an inconvenience —it costs our economy jobs and hurts productivity. Too many Americans waste too much time each year on clogged highways and congested roads. In 2009, congestion cost Americans well over $115 billion in wasted time and fuel, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute. 

Our global competitors know just how important a first-rate transportation network is. 

They’ve moved ahead with record transportation investments to connect their communities to the world, while we fall further behind. Our surface transportation system also poses risks to our health and environment. It is one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the United States. Far too many people are injured and killed on our highways — more than 33,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2009.

Meanwhile, the demand on our transportation system grows. Cars are cramming highways and rising fuel prices are draining American wallets. Americans have turned to Amtrak and other public transportation systems to get where they need to go. 

Amtrak ridership is soaring nationwide, reaching record-breaking levels. In the first five months of this fiscal year, Amtrak’s Cardinal line, which runs through West Virginia, experienced a 17.1 percent jump from this time a year ago.

For too long, we’ve deferred tough decisions on how to deal with our archaic transportation system and how to spend our scarce transportation funding resources. We need a strategic, long-term vision for rebuilding our transportation system. Last month, I introduced a bill, the Federal Surface Transportation Policy and Planning Act of 2011, to put us on this path.

To address our long-term transportation challenges, my bill sets clear transportation goals. It creates new levels of accountability and transparency. For example, most infrastructure money is currently funneled to states through formulas that are not tied to results or performance. States receive infrastructure funding with few requirements to report how those funds are used. 

That’s got to stop. We have to be better stewards of taxpayer dollars. 

My bill will tie money to tangible measures of improvement and create more accountability in how our transportation dollars are spent. It will require the secretary of Transportation to meet concrete goals, such as reducing national motor vehicle-related fatalities, increasing the proportion of non-highway modes of freight and passenger transportation, and reducing the percentage of gross domestic product consumed by transportation costs. 

Americans deserve to know what they are getting when they commit to investing in our transportation system. They’re willing to pay for it as long as they know that their money will be used wisely. According to a recent study, 66 percent of voters said improving the country’s infrastructure is “very important.” 

But Americans also demand accountability. In this same survey, respondents gave the highest levels of support to holding government accountable for showing how projects fit into an overall national plan.

Simple changes to our surface transportation programs, such as requiring better data collection and improving reporting requirements, would go a long way to providing the accountability we need and taxpayers deserve. That’s exactly what my bill will do. 

The federal government has always played a driving role in building our nation’s transportation networks. Lincoln built the railroads to connect our coasts. Eisenhower created the vision for connecting our communities with highways. Today, we must make investments to keep faith with the great investments made generations ago.

Our transportation system was the envy of the world. It still can be, but this will require smart, strategic investments that American taxpayers can respect and support.

Rockefeller is chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.