Our do-nothing Congress has indeed done something – that thing they do best – by kicking the transportation funding can down the road once more. We now have a bill that grants the Highway Trust Fund some $11 billion over the next 10 months to help fund the country’s roadways and mass transit projects.
The bill has gimmicks (“pension smoothing”) and critics on both sides of the aisle (a better, alternate proposal to the one passed was a bipartisan creation) with calls for increased taxes to fund transportation investment even from the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Yet we have more of the same while our roads and bridges erode and become ever-more congested. Our rail and public transit systems struggle to stay afoot despite times of record ridership. So why do we do it? Why do we keep investing the minimum amount while other countries pass us by in quality and breadth of transportation networks?
A curious question is why do we sit around and do nothing where in the past we invested in great projects? Would some of our greatest transportation projects, such as the Transcontinental Railroad or Interstate Highway System, have been pursued and constructed if put up for a vote today? The effects of those projects are huge – so what would we have lost if those before us had not had the foresight to see these things through?
Whatever (mostly self-inflicted) crises our country faces today are not near those that were going on when the Pacific Railroad Acts were passed during the Civil War. In spite of the conflict the nation blew tunnels through mountains and lay tracks in the wake to find a railroad completed and two coasts united by the end of the 1860s.
The cost is unclear but has been estimated to have been around $100 million – an investment that, according to American Experience’s treatment on the transcontinental railroad, saw $50 million worth of freight shipped coast to coast each year within 10 years. A journey across the continent that once took months via land route or sea had been shortened to less than a week. For better or for worse, the American West became more open and accessible than it had ever been.
Hindsight makes the decision to push forward with the transcontinental railroad a no-brainer. As with today, opposition to great infrastructure projects existed in the many years leading to the passage of the Railroad Acts and completion of the line. The Southern states – the ones who would eventually secede – long opposed the railroad as the routing would not include their land and, thus, was thought to be of no use to them. We find such narrow-minded opposition to transportation projects still today in the face of high-speed rail or public transportation (see the Nashville AMP).
The transcontinental railroad laid the path for the development of the West and the connectedness of our country. Rail would reign supreme until the automobile, and a little bus company corruption, would push it aside after World War II. But while a cross-country rail trip took less than a week in the 1870s a similar journey by automobile, like that taken by an army convoy including a young Dwight Eisenhower, from Washington, DC to San Francisco in 1919 took some 62 days. Impressed by the German Autobahn while serving as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II and remembering his slog across the continent over 30 years earlier, President Eisenhower supported the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, thus authorizing the Interstate Highway System.
Though over-budget by about $400 billion and completed some 25 years after schedule the investment proved fruitful and tied the nation together more than ever. Just its impact on the economy is of note as The Economist points out that during the first years of construction “interstate-highway spending was responsible for 31% of the annual increase in American productivity.”
Of course, it wasn’t all good times and happiness with the Transcontinental Railroad or Interstate Highway System. People died during construction, many were paid meager wages, and communities divided by unfair planning decisions. The great benefits from both investments could probably be taken down a rung due to the sacrifices that many had to make.
But where would we be today without such creations? How different would the country be if tracks had not been laid across the nation or if their placement delayed by unwillingness to invest? The automobile had long since found its way into the culture of America when the first soil was turned for construction of the Interstate system so where would we have be had it not been created to meet the demand of a growing populace?
Today we enjoy the infrastructure given to us by those before us and, often, in much the same form as those earlier generations saw. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given our roads a D, or something just above failing but still below mediocre. They state that this costs the economy $101 billion every year while our nation’s public transit system sets us back $90 billion (also receiving a D). Airports, bridges, railroads – all seeing record use, all receiving poor to mediocre grades, and all receiving dismal funding. How exactly do we expect these conditions to improve with mediocre to poor to failing levels of investment?
So as we sit on our hands and wait we must try to imagine what our country will look like in the future. Recurring congestion today will not magically improve in ten year’s time with no effort to improve. Perpetually delayed trains will not run more efficiently, nor faster, without the funds to maintain and expand upon what’s been given to us. The population continues to grow while our infrastructure remains stagnant, becoming older and more obsolete with every passing day, and no spineless, gimmicky funding effort is going to change that. So how can we not invest in our country – one so often billed as the best – and instead accept mediocrity as our new standard of being?
Nick Fudala is a co-founder of ratpag.com and lives in Brooklyn, New York.