Mention asphalt or rail in a conversation to someone outside the transportation industry and you will surely be met by a blank stare or feigned yawn. But, ask the same person about his or her commute and emotion quickly returns.
This is the dilemma for policy makers when it comes to improving our transportation infrastructure -- how to make commuters aware of the need for significant investment to make our transportation system better and safer. Even tea party Republicans acknowledge our roads and bridges are crumbling but they don't want to commit the revenues needed to make a dent in the problem.
It's important to understand the enormity of the nation's infrastructure disaster. Make no mistake, in the land of the car, our road quality ranks with many third world nations. Our rail lines are worse, especially when compared to other G8 countries plus China. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ACSE), which issues reports every four years on the state of America's transportation infrastructure, saw little improvement even after the massive stimulus spending early in the Obama presidency. In 2009, ASCE gave the United States road infrastructure a grade of D-, transit a grade of D, bridges a C, and rails a C-. In 2013, both road and transit infrastructures each received a D, and both bridge and rail infrastructure each received a C+. Despite some improvement, these are not grades that should make our political leaders proud.
President Obama is now trying to improve that score in a far more meaningful way. He has spoken often in his State of the Union speeches and on other occasions about the importance of improving our transportation system and last month made his strongest push to date. The President is calling for closing corporate and business tax loopholes to provide just over $300 billion to be spent over four years to fix or replace what he called raggedy, aging bridges, roads, tunnels and rails.
The sad thing is even on the chance the President gets what he wants from Congress, the money is still far short of the over $700 billion required over the next for years for our roads and bridges alone, according to ASCE. Of course, Republicans will do everything to stop this proposal in its tracks (pun intended). They will whine about new revenue as an unfair burden on the wealthiest Americans.
But remember our roads, bridges and rails are used quite literally by every American -- poor, middle class and wealthy. Not only is fixing our infrastructure an ideal jobs creator -- for every $1 million spent on our infrastructure 27 jobs are created -- it helps our economy far beyond the impact on construction jobs. The San Francisco Federal Reserve notes that every dollar of Federal Highway grants a state receives will in turn provide a two dollar boost to the state economy. In addition, by improving our transportation network, less time is spent commuting, making workers more efficient. Every 15 minutes saved on employees' commutes equates to a 12 percent increase in productivity in their 40 hour work weeks.
What's more is the cost of not investing and improving our infrastructure over time. Beyond the crumbling roads and late trains we put up with every day are the real and practical costs to delaying needed improvements. For instance, in New Jersey, a one billion-dollar project is about to begin to rehabilitate the dilapidated, heavily trafficked Pulaski Skyway, an 80 year old, 3.5 mile long bridge linking Newark Liberty International Airport and New York City via the Holland Tunnel. To fans of the Sopranos, you'll remember seeing the Pulaski featured in the opening credits.
Rehabilitating what should have been done over many years must now be done in two for fear of the Skyway's condition. That sounds fine except for the impact on the residents nearby as the road has to be closed in one direction for the duration of the project.
In Jersey City, this will be a traffic Armageddon despite careful planning to minimize the impact. Think of the impact on those who will be stuck in a rough traffic situation. It would have been far better if the proper attention and funding could have been made available over time rather than moving at the last moment.
The Pulaski project is a metaphor for our nation's transportation infrastructure. Ignoring our roads and rails will only make things much worse later. President Obama is right to call for this investment. It's time for every American to think more about their commutes than their partisanship and support this plan. We will all benefit.
Steven Fulop is the Mayor of Jersey City, NJ.