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Debate Comes at a Critical Time

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is preparing a new six-year authorization bill to guide the nation’s surface transportation program. At the same time, the national economy faces a crisis that it has not seen since the Great Depression.

These two events are not unrelated, however, and a key approach to addressing the problems at the heart of both can be found in infrastructure investment.

Since the Interstate Highway System was laid out in 1956, the country has experienced some significant changes:

• Between 1950 and 2007, the U.S. population doubled from 150 million to 300 million, and gross domestic product has exploded from $345 billion to $13 trillion.

• Imports have tripled and exports have doubled since 1970.

• Land use and economic development patterns have changed significantly, as have migration patterns, all leading to an increased dependence on our transportation infrastructure, particularly highways.

As a nation, we have failed to provide sufficient investment and adapt surface transportation programs to address these challenges, and the effect is staggering. The Texas Transportation Institute’s 2007 Urban Mobility Report found that in 2005, wasted fuel and time by drivers stuck in traffic translated into a total congestion cost of $78.2 billion — $5.1 billion higher than a year earlier.

Congestion is also increasing logistics costs. UPS estimates that if each of its package delivery drivers incurred five minutes of delay because of congestion, it would cost the company $100 million. In my home state, Minnesota, General Mills spends close to $650 million a year trucking hundreds of millions of cases of food to market. The company estimates that every reduction of one mile per hour below the posted limits in the average speed of its shipments adds $2 million in higher annual costs.

Our nation’s intermodal transportation infrastructure serves as the backbone of our economic security and competitiveness, as well as our quality of life. It facilitates the safe movement of people and goods, linking our communities to each other and to the world. Our global competitors in China, India and the European Union are building and rebuilding highly integrated and well-designed expressways, high-speed rail networks, transit systems, airports and intermodal freight terminals. It is critical that we recommit ourselves to investing in our nation’s transportation infrastructure, from projects of national significance down to state and local projects.

Unfortunately, infrastructure is easily overlooked. It is always there, always functioning, always serving our needs. When infrastructure fails, though, we are suddenly awakened to the fragility of our national transportation system.

On Aug. 31, 2007, Americans witnessed the devastating effects of our neglected infrastructure: the tragic collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. This tragedy demonstrated the need to make a commitment to invest in the maintenance, reconstruction and replacement of our nation’s surface transportation infrastructure. In doing so, we can create thousands of jobs at a time of mounting unemployment across the nation.

This will require a two-pronged approach: first, by addressing the economic recovery needs of increased job creation through infrastructure investment in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and, secondly, through the development of a new, visionary, long-term plan for repairing and modernizing our surface transportation system to meet the needs of the 21st century.

I believe that we are now on the cusp of a transformational moment in the evolution of our national surface transportation program. We face many challenges in determining what the shape of our system should be and how best to finance it.

The current surface transportation authorization expires at the end of September. Beginning now, and sustaining throughout the year, leaders in Washington, D.C., as well as in the state capitals, must rise above our differences. We must find common ground in policies — and funding — that will best serve the nation’s passenger and freight mobility needs.

At the same time, we can create or sustain as many as 35,000 jobs for every $1 billion we invest in transportation infrastructure, putting Americans to work and aiding the recovery of the nation’s ailing economy.

Without a renewed commitment to providing the vision and leadership needed to rebuild and expand our national transportation network, congestion will worsen, goods will move more slowly, and our economic recovery will be impeded. Moreover, people will spend more frustrating hours idling in traffic, air quality will continue to deteriorate, roadway fatalities and injuries will continue to mount, and our quality of life will be diminished.

It is the committee’s goal to ensure that states and communities have the resources to make needed improvements to their transportation infrastructure, to build the infrastructure that they need today and for the future, to increase mobility, to sustain economic vitality, and to enhance quality of life for all Americans.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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