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Building for the 21st century economy

It’s no wonder, really – the Kingshighway Bridge is, after all, over 80 years old. Unfortunately, its condition is far from unique. In Missouri, one-third of our bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, and 34 percent of our state’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

What is true for Missouri is equally so for the rest of the nation. Crumbling roads and bridges, and ever-worsening traffic congestion are choking our economy and costing us billions of dollars in fuel and lost work-hours.

The bottom line is this: We simply cannot expect 1930’s infrastructure to carry us into the 21st Century global economy.

The business community understands this. When President Obama called for a major investment in transportation and infrastructure in his State of the Union address in January, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce vocally endorsed the proposal – joining the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations in doing so.

In a town like Washington, it’s not too often you see these two groups agree on anything. But they understand that investing in infrastructure is good for workers and businesses. In fact, every $1 billion invested in transportation infrastructure creates about 35,000 jobs and adds up to $6 billion to our gross domestic product

Of course, this unanimity becomes a bit more complicated in the context of the current financial situation. With a serious budget crunch at the national, state and local levels, we must search for policy solutions that help us get more from every dollar we invest. 

Here are two concrete examples:

First: Provide local flexibility.

Because strict rules require federal dollars only be spent on capital improvements, local transit authorities are often faced with a problem: parking lots full of buses, but no money to pay drivers and mechanics. As a result, transit authorities across the country have had to lay off thousands of employees and cut routes that other workers depend on to get to their jobs. 

By giving local officials more flexibility, we can help get more bus drivers and train operators behind the wheel, meaning fewer cars on the road and less congestion. In the St. Louis region, a temporary measure passed by Congress providing this kind of flexibility helped restore one-third of previously cut service, bringing 250 bus drivers, train operators, machinists, and support staff back to work – all at no additional cost to taxpayers.

Second: Build smarter, not just bigger.

As anyone who drives to work in the greater Washington, DC, area can tell you, congestion is a mounting problem, despite repeated efforts to expand interstates and widen highways. 

This growing traffic problem isn’t just an annoyance. It is a dollars and cents issue: in 2005, people in St. Louis region alone spent 38 million hours stuck in traffic and $23 million on wasted fuel.

Countries like China are already investing in Intelligent Transportation Systems – or ITS – to deal with their congestion issues. They understand what we must: we cannot just build our way out of congestion, traffic problems; we have to build smarter, and technology offers cost-effective tools to reduce congestion, make roads safer and help support commerce.

The fact is, investing in transportation and infrastructure should not be a partisan issue. As evidenced by the collaboration between the U.S. Chamber and the AFL-CIO, we can – and must – check our ideological differences at the door if we want to find solutions that will get people back to work and help businesses grow. 

We’re entering an age of unprecedented economic competition and technological innovation, and the path to overcoming our aging transportation system will require us to meet challenges we never envisioned. But Americans have faced challenge before, and we’ve always shown the grit and determination to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving the American dream. If we set aside our differences and work together, we’ll do so again.

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