Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a young Army officer in 1919 when the U.S. Army launched the first Transcontinental Motor Convoy across the United States. The convoy left the Ellipse south of the White House in Washington, D.C. on July 7, 1919, and followed the nations' only transcontinental route, the Lincoln Highway, to San Francisco where it arrived two months later.
Americans came out in droves (no pun intended) to greet the convoy as it made its way across cracked bridges and through mud. A primary reason for the convoy was to emphasize the need for the Federal government to subsidize better roads across America. Although Eisenhower's main interest was troop movement across the country, he stepped up when he became President to advocate for well-paved and easily traversed roads throughout America. His support led to the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 -- a law that continues today as the Highway Trust Fund that pays for the 97 percent of the roads and highways that are owned by state and local governments.
Importantly, a bill originally proposed in 1955 by Democratic Senator Albert Gore (the senior) was soundly defeated by an American public that did not want increased taxes. But one year later, a group called the Road Gang came together. It included road builders, civic associations, tire companies, oil companies and homebuilders. This diverse coalition convinced members of Congress and the American public that tax money transportation infrastructure was essential to the nation's growth and prosperity.
Fast forward to today and we have a Highway Trust Fund with just 15 days of money left to function. Just like in 1955, anti-tax zealots have been trumping common sense and the nation's future on blatantly political grounds.
Just this week, there are glimmers of hope. On July 8, Republican Dave Camp, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee released a bipartisan plan to fund federal highway projects through May 2015. Senators also announced that they were close to a deal that would provide similar short-term life support for the fund. Short-term solutions are better than letting the Trust Fund lapse, but we must put the greater good of the nation ahead of such blatant political maneuvering and keep the Trust Fund alive for the longterm.
There is no better symbol of democracy than America's interlinking roadway system -- ribbons of tar, concrete and engineering brilliance that bind every citizen in the nation. Congressional hyper-partisanship could return us to the conditions encountered by the Army in its cross-country trip of 1919.
Every American today needs to contact their Congressional representatives and urge them to set politics aside and maintain Federal support of our transportation infrastructure. Just as in 1956, we must have a long-term, bipartisan agreement. Politics today cannot be allowed to trump what the U.S. Army knew in 1919 to be true -- high quality roads are essential to the growth and good of the nation.
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