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Edward Wytkind

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America, Let's Get Back to Work

Posted: 03/08/2013 1:50 pm

You probably don't have to look beyond your own community to see the visible signs of a crumbling and over-crowded transportation system. And you probably don't need to look further than your own family or close friends to find someone who is out of work.

These two problems may seem separate from one another, but they're not. They share a common solution: if we invest in rebuilding our nation, we will also create new jobs that teach valuable skills and support the middle class. But this is not happening because too many in Washington are playing political games and turning a cold shoulder to the millions of Americans stuck in traffic and in long unemployment lines. Lowering the high unemployment rate and ending the brinksmanship that threatens our economy are at the center of a transportation labor agenda.

With every mode of transportation suffering from neglect, it is hard to know where to start. Perhaps the place to start is with what rises to the surface (pun intended). We need to confront the hard truth that the mechanism we use to fund public transit and highways, the Highway Trust Fund, is broken. Because the federal gas tax has been frozen for 20 years and isn't adjusted for inflation, the purchasing power of these funds has fallen 33 percent in two decades. We're trying to operate and build 2013 transit and highway networks on a 1993 budget. We need an increase in the gas tax that is indexed to inflation and we should be open to other ideas to avoid what we're calling the "mobility cliff."

With more people riding Amtrak than ever before, you would think politicians would be jumping over each other to expand passenger rail. But, in a sure sign of dysfunction, this has yet to happen. As Congress considers a long-term plan for Amtrak, we are already seeing ideologues peddling long-disproven privatization schemes, GOP governors rejecting new funding for high-speed trains because it comes from President Obama, and even some in Congress debating how much Amtrak should charge for a cheeseburger! A better way to run a railroad would be to make a more efficient, modernized Amtrak as the centerpiece of a national high-speed rail network.

Now, as we enter the shameful, avoidable sequester, instead of moving America forward, we are moving our country backward. And we're scapegoating federal workers as they face furloughs and pay cuts. Both the failure to invest in infrastructure and the reckless sequester are reminders that too much of Washington is tied up in pettiness and rigid ideology.

Of course, as always, we have to multi-task. As we push for funding solutions to our transportation investment crisis, we face policy battles on many fronts.

U.S. aviation workers are in harm's way as the European Union and its allies double down on a wrongheaded aviation trade liberalization agenda. Yes, the EU is at it again making the case that America should gut its airline foreign ownership and control rules. We think the EU is dead wrong and will work against any aviation trade policy reforms that threaten U.S. airline jobs.

Similarly, too many in Washington fail to understand the importance of a strong U.S. merchant marine and are chipping away at critical maritime laws such as cargo preference. Already, in last year's surface transportation reauthorization, so-called MAP-21, some politicians slipped in a change in law that reduces from 75 percent to 50 percent the amount of U.S. government-generated food aid cargo that must travel on U.S.-flag vessels crewed by Americans. And our government still doesn't uniformly enforce the laws already in effect. We're committed to fixing these problems and protecting middle-class maritime jobs.

The time for speeches has come and gone. Washington needs to take a timeout from politicking and start worrying about not letting this become the generation that lets our economy be defined by failing transit and rail systems, deteriorating highways and bridges, an aging and capacity-constrained aviation system, a port/maritime infrastructure losing the race to be the world's gateway for trade, and stubbornly long unemployment lines. We are fast becoming that generation.

The agenda we have rolled out focuses on investing in America, protecting and creating transportation jobs and making sure our government protects strategically important industries like aviation and maritime from perverse trade policies and from weak enforcement of the laws already on our books. America needs to get back to work.

 

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