In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama made the case for rebuilding America's aging infrastructure, reminding us that "21st century businesses need 21st century... ports, and stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet."
Over the next few months, President Obama will take this message straight to the American people and call on Congress to pass a long-term bill to fund new American infrastructure.
To spur real action, however, the President's voice can't be the only one Capitol Hill is hearing. America's mayors and the thousands of other officials who lead our city halls, city councils, and metropolitan planning organizations need to raise their voices, too. After all, they are the people who oversee our roads, rails, and bus systems at the local level, and they need an active partner in the U.S. Congress to keep their constituents moving.
We've both served in city halls. So we know that, sometimes, people do not understand the crucial role the federal government plays in local transportation. After all, for most travelers, their day-to-day experience with transportation makes it seem like a local matter: They drive across town to take their kids to school; or they take the bus a couple stops to work. The average commute in the United States takes 25 minutes.
Yet even some of the shortest trips are only made possible because of federal funding. The U.S. government pays for everything from big bridges in big cities to the smallest roads in the smallest towns. And even though a bus may have the name of the town or city painted on it, chances are very high that federal funding helped buy that bus.
This kind of support from Congress has never been more important. Over the next generation, more will be demanded of our city streets, transit lines, and freight routes than ever before. Thirty years from now, the country will be home to up to 70 million more people, many of them living in major metropolitan areas. At the rate our transportation system is crumbling, it will not be able to meet that challenge. It can't even handle the population we have today. (America has enough structurally deficient bridges that, if you lined them up end-to-end, they would stretch from Boston to Miami).
We're on track to underinvest in transportation by nearly a trillion dollars by the end of the decade. And if Congress doesn't pass a transportation bill by May, the fund that pays for our highways will start to go bankrupt. Even if they do pass one, just any old bill won't avert crisis. Unless we pass a big, long-term investment in transportation, our streets will continue to crumble, and -- estimates show -- by 2040 our roads will be so congested that Americans will spend nearly 10 times longer waiting in traffic.
The good news is: In Washington, most leaders, on both sides of the aisle, don't want this to happen.
Congressman Paul Ryan, a Republican, said last week, "We want to get a transportation bill done and we know we need to this."
As for the Obama Administration, last year the U.S. Department of Transportation sent Congress a long-term transportation bill called the GROW AMERICA Act. The bill not only included more funding for bridges, roads, and buses, it also gave mayors and local leaders a greater say in where and how we build those crucial routes of transportation.
Our message to mayors and local leaders is: Organize your community to advocate for a big, long-term investment in transportation like this. Meet with your chambers of commerce. Talk about this with church groups. Reach out to parent groups and civic associations. Let them know there is no reason they should have to accept a life of sitting in traffic, or walking on busy streets without sidewalks, or driving over bridges that need to be replaced, or paying extra for the pleasure of driving on pothole-ridden roads.
Public influence is real. It may not always be able to sway Congress on those hot-button issues, where beliefs are entrenched and hardened. But as the president reminded us, Congress has a long history of bipartisan cooperation on transportation, and on this issue we believe things can change for the better as long as people demand it.
It's time for City Hall to call Capitol Hill.
Anthony Foxx is the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Chris Coleman is the mayor of St. Paul and former president of the National League of Cities.
Reported by Pioneer Press - TwinCities.com