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Warning: Transportation devolutionists running in GOP primary

Say it isn’t so. Some candidates for president seem to believe that we can have a modern transportation system and strong economy if we dump transportation policy and funding duties on the states. Yes, apparently these candidates want to run our transportation system as though what happens in Pennsylvania doesn’t matter in Oregon. Talk about an absurd proposition.

Anyone who understands the intricacies of America’s integrated supply chain and vast transportation system that gets people to their destination knows that it is nonsense to think that our economy can succeed if we strip the federal government — through wrongheaded “devolution” proposals — of its role as steward of our national freight and passenger network.

{mosads}If we were to follow these reckless plans and push everything onto the states, including difficult political decisions on funding, the nation would be forced to rely on a patchwork of transportation systems conceived and funded (or, more likely, under-funded) by individual states. Translation? We’d be living without any guarantee that the state transportation systems would weave together to serve the entire nation.

As House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) reminded us last year and many times since, “the federal government has had a role in transportation for the last 233 years.” The lead Democrat on the committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), said this about devolution: “We tried that. This is 1956. The brand new Kansas Turnpike ended in Emil Schweitzer’s farm field for years because Oklahoma couldn’t afford their part of that system until the Eisenhower bill passed, and we had a highway trust fund.”

The fact of the matter is, devolution and transportation don’t go together—hell, they don’t even belong in the same sentence together. We can’t expect cars, trucks and buses to just avoid states that fail to maintain a reliable and safe system. The implications on the broader economy would be tremendous. Think of the businesses that might be forced to avoid relocation or sales to states where transportation systems aren’t up to par and the tourism dollars lost as a result of poor, localized transportation infrastructure. If politicians who support devolution would ask business leaders for their opinion, they would get an earful about how a fully integrated, national transportation system that knits together our diverse economy and meets uniform standards for performance, safety and quality of infrastructure is needed.

The fact that there’s bipartisan opposition to killing the federal role in transportation is the good news. The bad news is that at least three viable GOP candidates for president — Gov. John Kasich (Ohio), Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) — want to get out of the transportation business and instead pursue the economically risky path of letting states fend for themselves. Never mind that their proposals are tantamount to imposing unfunded mandates on the states. Why’s that you ask? Because governors and mayors would be left with the proverbial empty bag, meaning they would have to raise billions through new revenue mechanisms such as fuel tax hikes. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that GOP primary voters aren’t real fond of unfunded mandates.

Rubio would virtually kill the federal fuels tax, repeal the mass transit program (note to commuters: you’re on your own) and destroy provisions in law that protect middle class jobs. Translation: absolve our government of a major responsibility envisioned by the Founders and along the way strand working people who need reliable commuter service while hollowing out protections for workers. So that’s what “restoring America’s strength” looks like.

Kasich says he will “direct policy authority, funding and responsibilities to the states, which are in the best position to assess infrastructure needs and develop strategies to manage them.” Translation: force states to raise massive revenues and, I suppose, pray that they’ll adopt the correct policies that support the world’s largest and most complex system of interstate commerce. Good luck with that.

During Saturday night’s New Hampshire debate, Bush, arguing we should get back to being a “Tenth Amendment country,” said he would shift transportation responsibilities to the states. This is just more poll-driven, anti-government rhetoric, but in this context it is damaging. Such a plan would saddle states with enormous burdens they can’t handle and feed into that discredited narrative about running separate transportation system inside state borders, as if daily life and our economy actually works that way.

America’s next president will inherit a transportation system that suffers from decades of neglect and a political system in Washington that lacks the imagination and political will to act boldly. Presidents from both parties were at the center of landmark legislative achievements in the 20th century that led to the build-out of the world’s greatest transportation system. The breadth of the challenge facing the next president is enormous. It will take a special leader in the Oval Office to make the case for massive new transportation infrastructure investments directly to the American people.

As this often painful audition for the presidency plays out, we must not accept candidates for president who fail to grasp the magnitude of this transportation investment crisis, and who advance policies that would make us a loser in the increasingly competitive global economy. We need a vast transportation system that can deliver goods and people safely and with speed and precision, not some piecemeal experiment dreamed up by anti-government crusaders who can’t seem to get out of their own way. Americans can and will do better than that in November.

Wytkind is president of the Transportation Trades Department at the AFL-CIO.

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