Where There Is No Vision, the People Perish

04/29/2011 05:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2011
  • Laura Barrett Executive Director, Transportation Equity Network

Back in 1957, Congress had a very good idea: to designate the third week in May each year as National Transportation Week. The goal was to "to give complete recognition to the importance to each community and its people of the transportation system of the United States and the maintenance of the facilities of the system in the most modern state of adequacy to serve the needs of the United States in times of peace and in national defense."

"The most modern state of adequacy" is a hopeful phrase. But it's a far cry from where we are today. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America's infrastructure an overall grade of D, and new reports by the Organization for International Investment (on global competitiveness) and Transportation for America (on the poor condition of our nation's bridges) make the picture even grimmer. Transportation for America estimates that an average of 282,672,680 vehicles per day pass over structurally deficient bridges. And funding for our transit systems, which 35 million Americans rely on every weekday, is so far from "adequate" that 84% of transit systems were forced to raise fares, cut service, or both last year.

But is that enough to make Congress pause from its frenzy of budget-slashing and consider investing in transportation infrastructure? Maybe it needs an additional incentive.

What about job creation? Legions of economists have argued that transportation infrastructure investments are one of the most powerful engines of job creation and economic growth. Back in 2008, in our report The Road to Good Jobs, TEN looked at the job-creation potential of different kinds of transportation investments, and concluded that transit is the biggest job creator, with highway repairs and maintenance in second place. In our follow-up report, More Transit=More Jobs, we put concrete numbers on the job creation potential of transit investments, city by city.

"It doesn't matter how many good reasons there are," a skeptic might say. "Americans are just too divided to get anything done these days."

It's true that our current divisions are deep. The frenzy of budget-slashing is pitting rich against poor, black against white, city against suburb, and worker against worker. But the heart of the TEN vision -- which we call "One Nation, Indivisible" -- is that our national transportation system can be a force to bridge our divides: geographic, economic, racial, political, and spiritual.

America was founded on a vision of unity amid diversity. Unity is part of our country's name and its motto: E pluribus unum -- out of many, one. In our individual strivings, in the cares and pursuits of our personal lives, we are many; in our public lives, where we are bound together by a commitment to each other's success, we are one. A commitment to a shared public life is what made America possible. A commitment to community is the heart of what it means to be an American.

Eighty-two percent of Americans want more transportation options, including 79% of rural voters. Transportation has long been an area of bipartisan cooperation and compromise, and it has the potential to be the greatest source of political accord in the nation at the moment--one that's already united Sen. Barbara Boxer, Rep. John Mica, U.S Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. Most importantly, when we ensure our transportation investments connect us to opportunity rather than isolating and dividing us, we help forge the commitment to community that made America possible.

So take a few minutes to read the TEN vision, and spread the word about National Transportation Week. It's about a lot more than how we get to work in the morning.