End the gridlock now on transportation

Priorities in the nation’s capital are like a bad commuting story — everybody has one. As a former secretary of Transportation, I’m particularly in tune with how these items relate to one another. And as the former chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee (now Transportation and Infrastructure), I’m also aware of the importance of bipartisan cooperation for the purposes of achieving results for the citizens we serve. The time is now to put gridlock aside and to get serious about America’s infrastructure problem.

Sadly, gridlock is the state in which we find our transportation network these days. With passengers and freight squeezing every ounce out of port, aviation, rail, transit, pipeline and highway infrastructure, the future of our nation’s economic growth relies more than ever on the efficiency, capacity and safety of the U.S. transportation system. 

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What does the future look like? At this very moment, America — saddled by soaring deficits and with long-term transportation plans stalled in Congress — has fallen behind emerging economies like Brazil, India and China. Over the last decade, these countries have gone from a trot to a full gallop, thanks to critical investments in their infrastructures. Meanwhile, we can’t even get out of the starting gate.

How did America get into this situation? A little history lesson is in order.

Historically the response of the Department of Transportation has been to step forward with a big open checkbook. But the days of big spending are over, and projected Highway Trust Fund revenues won’t be enough to meet our funding needs. Every one of the programs within the department falls within the category of federal “discretionary funding,” so we’re looking forward to the likelihood of flat budgets in good years and declining budgets in bad ones.

The bottom line is that we won’t simply be able to buy our way out of our problems. That is why policymakers and lawmakers need to work creatively and innovatively to develop new approaches for meeting transportation challenges.

The private sector obviously has a big role to play in all of this. Public-private partnerships are an essential part of modern transportation financing. They reduce project costs, accelerate project delivery and allow states and municipalities to greatly leverage available public resources. 

A growing number of states like Indiana, Florida and Texas have paid for ambitious infrastructure programs without raising gas taxes or grabbing new federal earmarks. Instead, these forward-looking states reached out to the private sector, where they found eager partners. 

Here in our backyard, the Capital Beltway — by far one of the most congested highways in the country — will see traffic flowing again thanks to a deal with a private company that will add new toll lanes.

That’s not to say the federal government won’t have a say in transportation decisions. But it is extremely difficult to plan any projects without a dedicated six-year bill for aviation and surface transportation programs. Extensions are a cop-out. Americans can’t afford to see Washington play “kick the can” with transportation funding for another year, another month, or frankly, even another day.

At the same time, the federal government should adopt accounting methods that treat expenditures on transportation infrastructure as investments rather than consumption, and take into account the future returns on those investments. It’s Economics 101.

After all, a restaurant chain wouldn’t think of operating without a capital budget. And no business operates without considering the returns it can expect from different capital investments over time. A careful evaluation of expected risks and returns is essential when businesses need to choose and prioritize among competing investment opportunities.

Looking at the current forecast models for gridlock, the consequences of inaction are significant both at home and when examining our global competitiveness. Infrastructure congestion at freight gateways will become greater and be with us for decades, adversely impacting both the import and export markets. Market growth is currently far outpacing infrastructure development and will continue to do so. And transport and supply chain costs will continue to flow down to consumers. Ultimately, we all pay the price for congestion.

We are at a crucial point in transportation funding. I remain hopeful that a solution can be reached, and that the phrase “glory days” will refer to America’s future, not just our past. 

Mineta is the global vice chairman for Hill & Knowlton, Inc. and served as the U.S. secretary of Transportation in the Bush administration and secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration.