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Meehan: If We Want to Fix Our Transportation System, We Must Fix Our Government

Americans rightly decry the political gridlock in Washington, D.C., but I’d bet they curse the traffic gridlock across the country even more.

I think federal lawmakers can and should address both.

Anyone who takes to the roads these days knows the sorry state of our infrastructure, and that long slog getting home from work every day is not just a quality of life issue, it’s also a safety issue and, in a time of high unemployment, an economic one.

Consider there are more than 69,000 structurally deficient bridges in the United States, and 5,900 of them are in Pennsylvania, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Our infrastructure rates a D grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the group estimates that our failure to keep our roads and bridges safe and efficient will cost us $2.1 trillion in lost economic growth over the rest of the decade. That means nearly 900,000 jobs.

And yet, Congress has failed to pass a reauthorization of the federal highway policy that expired in 2009. We must do better.

The reasons for ensuring a safe, modern and efficient transportation system are apparent. It will help prevent car accidents and save lives. It will spur long-term growth by allowing industries to spend more precious capital on innovation and hiring and less on moving raw materials and finished products. And it will entice global employers to increase their presence in the United States and bring jobs to our shores.

In my first year in Congress there have been some needlessly political debates in Washington, but I am encouraged that there are many of us who care more about getting something done than scoring points. And on transportation policy, there is cause for optimism that those focused on solutions will win out.

In December, Reps. John Carney (D-Del.), Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and I organized a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to support a six-year surface transportation reauthorization that is fully paid for. Our premise was simple: Our roads and bridges need urgent safety and efficiency improvements, and our economic recovery will depend in part on a safe, modern and efficient transportation network.

Sixty-two Democrats and 49 Republicans signed it. The letter was supported by stakeholder groups as diverse as the National Association of Manufacturers, the Teamsters union and the BlueGreen Alliance. Only Mother’s Day resolutions garner as much widespread, bipartisan support.

The group also recognized that with a $15 trillion debt, more deficit spending is impossible. New revenues will be needed to fund critical projects. In the past, Democrats and Republicans have supported measures to use royalty payments from new oil and gas leasing to fund transportation projects, and Democrats and Republicans have sought to direct repatriated foreign earnings to transportation and jobs measures. We should be able to come to agreement on new revenues without new taxes.

Given our fiscal constraints, we need to prioritize the federal transportation dollar. We cannot tolerate more “bridges to nowhere.” Federal policy should focus on our urgent, highest-priority needs and leave the bike paths to local authorities. First up should be our bridges, and a long-term transportation law should put potentially unsafe bridges at the head of the line for transportation dollars. Across the country there are more than 69,000 reasons to do so.

Addressing our highway gridlock will require a solution to our political gridlock, and vice versa. Doing so will produce not only better roads and bridges but better government and one worthy of the taxpayers who fund both.

Rep. Patrick Meehan is a member of the Homeland Security; Oversight and Government Reform; and Transportation and Infrastructure committees. He chairs the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

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