Do what’s right: Pass a bipartisan bill

Last Wednesday, the Senate passed a bipartisan surface transportation bill by a vote of 74-22. It is proof positive that when members of Congress set aside their political differences and focus on the common good, they can still solve tough problems for the American people.

This week, the House of Representatives has an opportunity to follow the Senate’s lead and pass bipartisan surface transportation legislation. If it does, it will boost our economy right away, support jobs in the short term and continue efforts to rebuild our infrastructure for the 21st century — a win, win, win for all Americans.

The fact is that America’s transportation challenges are enormous. Highways are choked with congestion. Bridges are deteriorating after years of neglect. Daily commutes have grown longer, more crowded and more expensive. And airport, transit and shipping delays cost businesses billions of dollars every year.

At the same time, nearly 1 in 5 construction workers is looking for employment. Not only is this an economic problem, it’s a missed opportunity — investing in America’s roads, railways, transit lines and airports is the perfect way to generate tens of thousands of jobs without drama or delay. 

The good news is that the Obama administration is already taking action and connecting people who need work with work that needs to be done. During a time of economic hardship, we have created hundreds of thousands of transportation-related jobs — and financed 15,000 transportation projects spread across all 50 states.

But if we want to keep our momentum going, the House must act now.

If the House does nothing, America’s surface transportation program will grind to a halt in 11 days. Such inaction could disrupt 134,000 active highway projects and 5,700 transit projects, while placing 3,500 federal transportation professionals on unpaid leave. The continued uncertainty about surface transportation reauthorization causes some states to shift their transportation dollars from the large projects that require a firm federal commitment to the smaller projects that are less critical to a national transportation system that already is overburdened and underfunded. 

A short-term extension — which would be the ninth such band-aid since America’s last transportation bill expired two-and-a-half years ago — would not provide the certainty our local partners are looking for as they ramp up for construction season. Americans in cold-weather states, from Montana to Minnesota, Michigan and Maine, know too well how quickly the warm weather will turn cold. They need a surface transportation bill that lets them make the most of a small window for work, just as all states, cities and contractors need a predictable environment in which to plan, bid, procure and break ground.

It is not too late, however, for the House to choose a different course.

By following the Senate’s lead and passing a bipartisan bill, the House can support jobs easing congestion on our roads, maintaining our transit and rail systems and providing commuters with safe, affordable ways to reach their destinations. The Senate bill would be a crucial down payment toward a safer, more efficient and more balanced transportation system that drives economic opportunity and gives the American people more transportation choices.

Ultimately, transportation is, and always has been, a bipartisan issue. There is no such thing as a Democratic or Republican road, bridge or transit network. There is no such thing as a Democratic or Republican crumbling infrastructure. 

That is why the last surface transportation reauthorization, the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act, passed the House with 417 votes and the Senate with 89. The reauthorization before that, the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, passed the House with 337 votes and the Senate by unanimous consent. I am optimistic that we can reach similar consensus today. 

I began my career as a high school civics teacher. The year 2012 is my 32nd in Washington politics. I appreciate that, in a democracy, we each have a responsibility to engage in robust debate over sometimes-contentious issues. But I also know that we have an obligation to compromise before political brinksmanship hurts the very citizens we have pledged to serve. 

This week is no moment for more empty rhetoric. Now is the time for serious action. I hope my former colleagues in the House will do the right thing for their constituents and swiftly pass a bipartisan surface transportation bill.

LaHood is secretary of the Department of Transportation and a former Republican representative from Illinois.