Oberstar stresses need for partisan cooperation and infrastructure investment in NASSTRAC keynote
April 21, 2011
The role of transportation infrastructure in fostering economic growth and success in the United States is one which does not have a political party attached to it, and that is why it is imperative that the country does the work that is needed to put it at the forefront in planning for the future.
That sentiment was made clear by James L. Oberstar, former Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Minnesota Congressman, at this week’s NASSTRAC Logistics Conference and Expo in Orlando, Florida.
In a wide-ranging speech largely focusing on the role transportation plays in our nation’s strength, Oberstar pulled no punches in succinctly describing the biggest challenges the U.S. faces and what needs to happen for them to be overcome.
“Congestion affects economics, quality of life, and the delivery of goods, and that is the biggest challenge for you in serving your customers and making America work,” Oberstar told the audience comprised of shippers and carriers.
And given the political dividing lines and tension in play, Oberstar noted that politics is the business of the people and the policies of the nation. What is wrong in this mix, he said, is partisanship.
But when partisanship is prevalent and the business of the people becomes highly charged and polarized is when things break down, he said. But an exception to this partisanship was the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee he led from 2007-2011.
“I have never seen a Republican road or a Democratic bridge,” said Oberstar. “We can work together to build all American roads and bridges for the good of the country. When we stick together, we can pass good legislation.”
Aside from the current partisan differences, Oberstar said more priority needs to be placed on the movement of freight in the U.S., given the aging transportation system which is no longer keeping pace with international trade and has a direct impact on the economy and job growth.
This is key considering the U.S. transportation infrastructure system has long been the envy of the world, with Oberstar pointing out that would not be possible without the financial support of the Highway Trust Fund.
“The answer is American ingenuity and know how and the necessity and will to make it work,” said Oberstar. “But today we are investing 1.9 percent of our GDP in our infrastructure. Europe is investing 5 percent, and China is investing 9 percent. You often hear things like ‘we will do more with less,’ but nobody does more with less with infrastructure.”
What’s more, he said there is no industrialized nation in the world that is currently doing less than the U.S. This was exemplified by the progress being made in Europe and China with high speed rail compared to the slow crawl HSR is proceeding at in the U.S.
Looking to the future, Oberstar said that the U.S. population is slated to grow by more than 40 percent in the next 30 years to roughly 420 million people, with freight volumes expected to rise about 70 percent from current levels in the next ten years.
“That growth is going to put additional demands on our intermodal system,” said Oberstar. “That means we need a new approach to our highway, transit, port, and aviation structures. But if we don’t make the investments and don’t look ahead and do what’s right and restructure the governmental system to deliver those investments, then goods will move more slowly, congestion will resume, people will spend more time in traffic, air quality will deteriorate, fatalities will increase, and our quality of life will be diminished.”
To put the need for further infrastructure investment into perspective, Oberstar said that the U.S. GDP was $345 billion in 1956 compared to $14 trillion today, with 1 million trucks on the road then compared to more than 7 million today. And the average household had one car which averaged 9,600 miles per year, whereas today the average household has three cars each driving 15,000 miles per year. And the amount of miles driven on U.S. highways has increased from 900 billion in 1956 to about 3 trillion today.
These numbers reflect mobility and productivity, explained Oberstar, but without sustainability and continued investment, the level of growth and productivity will cease.
And this was reflected in the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission report issued in January 2008, which said that over the next 40-to-50 years all levels of government need to be investing $225 billion per year in infrastructure compared to the current level of $85 billion, which Oberstar said was “insufficient” to keep pace with the deterioration of U.S. roadways and bridge systems.
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