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Pennsylvania Infrastructure Tour Underscores Essential Federal Role in Transportation | Commentary

Earlier this month, I was joined by members of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which I chair, other members of Congress and five state secretaries of Transportation from around the country as we traveled across my home state of Pennsylvania.

We traveled together in a bus, stopping at bridges in desperate need of repair and along highways that have become congested to the point of gridlock. We held roundtables and listening sessions on transportation issues with business leaders, local officials and members of the transportation community.

I had several goals in leading this Pennsylvania roadshow.

One of my objectives was to help the participants in our roadshow get a better feel for the condition of our transportation system and to further the discussion about it. We know our nation has significant infrastructure needs, but it’s more difficult for members of Congress and political decision-makers to truly understand the magnitude of those needs if they don’t get outside of Washington, D.C., or their capital offices to see for themselves, firsthand. It’s one thing to sit in a congressional hearing, listening to testimony and statistics about how many structurally deficient bridges there are in America. It’s quite another to stand next to a bridge that required a second bridge to be built underneath it — not to carry traffic, but to catch falling debris from the original deteriorating structure.

Another of my goals was to talk about these issues with people in business and government at the local level. This is where the rubber truly meets the road, where policies enacted by Congress and states are put into effect and where the impacts of good (or bad) infrastructure are most immediately felt and have real world consequences. When infrastructure and related policies are inefficient or ineffective, purchasing food and goods may cost families more, small businesses may not be able to hire additional workers and companies’ ability to remain competitive may be tied up in red tape.

This was a message illustrated by those we heard from during the meetings and events on our travels across Pennsylvania.

Another message rang clear on this roadshow. There is an important role to play for every level of government and the private sector, and we need to work together to address our infrastructure needs.

Just as states are responsible for making the primary decisions about how and where to invest in their roads and bridges, the federal government has a constitutional responsibility to ensure a sound national infrastructure system promotes the flow of commerce and connects one corner of country to another, and with the rest of the world.

Participants on the roadshow — including the top transportation officials in Oklahoma, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Pennsylvania — as well as those among the business community and at the local level with whom we discussed these issues, don’t want to see the federal responsibility eliminated and thrust upon them individually. In fact, they made it clear that concept would be fundamentally unworkable. They want Congress to listen to their ideas and input, to ensure our nation has a seamless transportation network and to see the federal role carried out more effectively.

These concepts continue to guide my approach as committee chairman. I believe we successfully passed a new law last year to strengthen our country’s harbors, ports and inland waterways infrastructure because we listened to a wide array of input and produced a proposal that improved federal programs and processes.

Now, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is focused on doing the same for other critical priorities. The primary emphasis of the roadshow was the need for a long-term surface transportation bill, and my committee will continue to focus on a bill that takes from the many ideas we’ve heard to improve our roads, bridges and transit infrastructure; cut red tape; accelerate project delivery; boost state and local authority; and welcome innovation, until that legislation is achieved.

Another of our committee’s priorities is a bill that addresses the federal bureaucracy’s decades-long inability to modernize our antiquated air traffic system, ensures the system becomes more efficient for the growing number of passengers and allows the United States to remain the world leader in aviation — a position that is slipping away from us.

These are only some of the challenges facing our national transportation system, but we can come up with solutions to these and other challenges if we remain open to a variety of ideas and if all parties at the federal, state and local level work together and focus on improving our transportation programs and policies.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., is the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

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