With the new Congress now firmly in place and working (well, sort of), the first couple of months of 2015 have been fascinating as politicians stake out new ground and rehash old positions. But if I had my 15 minutes of fame sitting in the corner offices of Senate and House leadership, I'd make the case that accountability must be their preeminent goal this year.
Why? Because those of us who believe America must get back to building modern and advanced transportation infrastructure haven't seen any movement on Capitol Hill despite the fact that our views align with those of most voters. The inability of voters to hold lawmakers accountable for their inaction has left us in a fix: our transportation infrastructure is decaying and millions of jobs are idling, all at a time when the wage gap in America is expanding and the middle class is shrinking.
I may not have that corner office in the Capitol, but voters effectively do -- or should. It's up to all of us to speak up and make sure that those in Congress know that we have noticed that our transportation system is crumbling, and we won't stand for it. And it's up to those in Congress to pay attention and get beyond the speeches.
Our public transit systems use exceedingly old equipment, endure anemic budgets, and unintentionally take it out on their riders by providing over-crowded or cancelled rides and run-down service. Note to lawmakers: When almost 11 billion transit trips are taken each year in America and you leave those transit systems to languish, you're setting yourself up to hear from a whole lot of fed-up voters.
Our highways are falling apart and doomed, like Congress, to gridlock. Note No. 2 to lawmakers: Roughly half of our major highways are chronically congested -- meaning there are millions of people sitting in traffic, losing billions of dollars in wasted time and accumulating ample time to figure out whom to blame.
And our bridges are falling down. Note No. 3 to lawmakers: The average voter has a one-in-nine chance (CBS News, above) that the bridge he or she travels across needs major repair or replacement.
But if you walked around Capitol Hill like I have over many years, you'd barely discern that many of the people we elect even notice these problems. Nothing close to a long-term blueprint for rebuilding our bridges, highways and transit systems has surfaced; instead, Congress has had to pass short-term extensions, or more accurately, "Band-Aid bills," that fund our surface transportation programs just long enough to keep them afloat. That's the bad news.
The good news is that so far in 2015 we are seeing some thaw in that frozen-in-time thinking in Congress. This shift is a sign that reality is setting in as we face the insolvency of the highway and transit trust fund in May.
Tax reform proposals to fund surface transportation have emerged recently, but some of them won't actually raise enough funds quickly enough, and others have little to no chance of being enacted. Many of those who are pushing these proposals want to get away from the gas tax mechanism but have yet to find bipartisan consensus around a plan that would actually work.
So that leaves us with the gas tax. And recently we've seen glimpses of courage as politicians come clean with voters and endorse the first increase in the gas tax since 1993. Some have co-sponsored actual legislation, while others on both sides of the aisle have at least expressed open-mindedness about raising the gas tax.
Of course the hate crowd led by, among others, Koch brothers-funded organizations is rallying its troops by claiming that life as we know it in America will cease to exist if we raise the gas tax to rebuild and expand our highways and transit systems. But these claims aren't just hollow; if heeded, they're "weapons of mass distraction," as ARTBA CEO Pete Ruane said recently.
The reason America built grand transportation infrastructure over the last century is that politicians knew that they were on the hook. They knew they would be held accountable: Americans and businesses expected them to get things done. Our nation had a clear view that it wanted to be a builder. It wanted to be an innovator, and it wanted to lead, not follow.
Now, decades later, Americans certainly haven't suddenly become timid. I doubt that they want to stop building things. They certainly don't want to stop innovating. And they certainly don't want to follow other countries -- they want us to be a nation that leads.
Achieving that will take more than just lip service paid to the idea of funding our transportation system; it will require bold action driven by a large dose of accountability in Washington. But remember that politicians don't hold themselves accountable -- but voters stuck in hopeless traffic and old and crowded buses and trains can.