Almost since I assumed the role of Secretary of Transportation, I have been ringing the alarm bell about the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund -- the federal source used to pay for highways and transit.
It is unfortunate that it has taken months of alarm a trust fund ticker an April bus tour meetings with dozens of governors and mayors and stakeholders ranging from the U.S. Chamber to Labor and a lot of shoe leather on Capitol Hill to get to a point where, just last week, the House passed a measure to avert the crisis in our highways and transit systems through a ten-month patch. And, later this week, the U.S. Senate is expected to take up a similar measure.
If this short-term patch passes, it won't be a time to celebrate.
It's hard to imagine that Congress will not push the snooze button on this issue when it's crunch time again. Come May, if we're not careful, we will be right here again, with the shot clock set to expire, looking for an easy solution to patch us for a few months, leaving the real conversation for another time.
I can hear what the folks up on the Hill will say already: "Gosh, we all know transportation is important. But we just can't get there right now."
Today, and until Congress passes a long-term bill, I implore Americans to join me and say, "No more delays. No more gimmicks. No more Band-Aids. Build our country, put us to work and give the next generation of Americans a chance to compete!"
Because if we're only building for the present, we're building for the past.
It's a sad commentary that we are, in effect, managing a declining system, a system that is crumbling, a system of growing potholes, a system with longer commute times and a system that will lose us jobs we have no business losing.
On the surface our transportation systems suffer from chronic under-investment, an old project delivery system that makes projects more expensive and time-consuming than necessary, and a set of policies that are more Model-T than Tesla.
Beneath the surface, the American people are confused about who to hold accountable, even as they sit in more traffic and face longer travel times in the future. America needs more than incremental adjustment; we need a big reset in transportation.
In other words, there are symptoms -- and then there is the underlying disease that's stopping so much from getting done.
First, the symptoms.
The first symptom is that our chronic underinvestment in transportation feels normal because we have been doing it so long. We talk about the infrastructure deficit like it is the normal course of things. Every year, the cost of catching up grows more and more out of reach. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that, at current spending levels, we will fall almost $850 billion dollars short of transportation needs nationally by 2020.
In Rhode Island, Governor Lincoln Chafee and his state DOT director showed me a chart of road conditions getting worse over the next 20 years at current spending levels.
Rhode Island is not alone. A few weeks ago, pieces of the Brooklyn Bridge fell off, causing it to shut down an underpass. The same thing is happening in Nashville.
We have had a spate of high-profile bridge collapses in Minneapolis and Washington state. And with a 100,000 bridges old enough for Medicare, it is not surprising that deferred maintenance is creating problems.
So, we have a big problem that's been treated like a little problem -- that's the first symptom.
Here's the second: The cumulative effect of the 27 short-term measures over the last five years is that, instead of ramping up transportation projects, we're slowing down.
When I used to go shopping as a child, I would occasionally pick up something, and my grandmother would tell me to put it down. "We're just browsing," she'd say. I eventually learned that browsing meant we weren't coming back to buy whatever it was.
By passing so many short-term measures while the rest of the country is ready to get going, Congress is doing the same thing. They're starving the system and effectively telling the country, "We're not really going to fix this."
This 28th patch will help us limp along for a few more months. Goodness knows, the last thing we need is anything that would put 700,000 jobs at risk.
But the absence of a negative is not a positive.
Speaking from my experience outside of Washington, I can tell you the future is murky for governors and mayors. They are slowing and some are outright stopping the planning process for new projects. Without planning, there is no project design. With no project design, there is no engineering work. With no engineering work, there is no project. Without projects, there is no relief.
Increasingly, states are shifting more and more of their programs to maintenance, which would be fine if our population growth was static. But it isn't. We'll have another 100 million people to move around by 2050 and almost double our freight needs by then. If we're stuck with the same system, Americans and their Made in the USA products will be stuck in traffic with even longer travel times than today.
This leads me to the third symptom. In addition to stockpiling a huge infrastructure deficit and putting a chill over state and local project planning, the circus mirror in Washington is making the impractical seem practical, and the practical seem impractical. Wrong looks right and right looks wrong.
The American people are wise, and when we explain this dilemma to them, as I have had many chances to do now, you give them a choice between a temporary, imperfect, more expensive solution and a real, lasting and cheaper one, they will pick the latter.
That's what we've offered with the GROW AMERICA Act, a bill put forth by our Administration to end the hand-wringing and help America seize the future.
It's a good bill.
It not only stabilizes the highway trust fund, it increases investment in it, by 37%, or more than a $22 billion increase each year, over four years.
It substantially invests in critical repairs.
It puts in place money to build a national freight network so we can grow even more manufacturing jobs.
It would help with the complaint that projects take too long by streamlining the federal permitting process and incentivizing states to speed things up, too, reducing cost and creating more value for the taxpayer dollar.
It brings rail into the dedicated funding family, along with highways and transit.
It strengthens Buy America and local hiring and provides more transportation dollars to local leaders.
And Congress can pay for GROW AMERICA without increasing deficits or raising rates by passing common-sense, pro-growth business tax reforms like preventing companies from moving profits overseas.
This bill or something like it ought to be a layup.
But when you talk to members, they say, we can't because we can't. Ladies and gentlemen, the idea that Congress cannot make a multiyear future-oriented transportation bill happen is one of the biggest self-fulfilling prophecies in our politics right now. And the lack of resolve is killing transportation softly and, with it, a key building block of our economy.
So, here we are, on the eve of another patch, another short term measure, another cloud of uncertainty that will grow our infrastructure deficit and roll the drawbridge up a little more on future generations. Meanwhile, Congress is running out of mattresses, child seats and rocks to look under to pay for transportation.
This brings me to the disease -- it's Congress, but it's deeper than Congress.
Abraham Lincoln was right -- the American people, when given access to facts, will do the right thing. But when they don't have the facts, we can get stuck. The American people need the facts. They know something's wrong. They are stuck in traffic. They have been patiently awaiting the new bypass or bridge project or new passenger rail station. But they can't put their finger on who to hold accountable. There is not a sign on their highways that says "your commute would be shorter if only Congress acted." The dots are not connected.
It gets even more confusing when they hear Congress passed a bipartisan measure to keep highway funding going. That sounds good. But they are not told to read the fine print. If they were told, they would know it's temporary and unlikely to fix what's really broken and do what's not being done. They would demand a real solution.
We need a moment of clarity and political courage, and that will not happen without the American people knowing the facts and raising their voices.
The good news is that it is starting to happen.
I've got governors -- 30 of whom are Republicans, by the way -- asking for a bill that lets them plan more than 10 months out.
They are not alone.
And last week, sixty-two associations -- like the National Association of Manufacturers -- joined together, calling on Congress for a long-term proposal.
They are not alone.
Eleven of my predecessors are joining me to push for a long-term solution: Secretaries LaHood, Peters, Mineta, Slater, Peña, Skinner, Card, Burnley, Dole, Coleman and Boyd.
Taken together, the twelve of us have served 35 years, standing watch over the country's roads, rails, and subways. Five of us served under Democratic presidents, seven under Republicans.
And while I am sure there are issues on which we may not agree, there's one thing we are united: in order to reach our potential as a nation, America will need to commit to a bold new multi-year plan to grow our transportation system. And today, we are releasing an open letter to Congress, calling on them to do just that.
If we can stand together, so can Congress.
But I won't stop here. I will not stop with inside the beltway. I'm going to remind the American people that they're in charge.
We're going to convene leaders in all 50 states and make the case for ending the gridlock on this issue. Right now, Washington is dictating outcomes to the American people. But democracy works the other way around. So we'll take this case to the American people and let them decide if the future is worth fighting for.
As a Department, we recognize the trends and challenges facing America, and we're going to work hard to make these trends and challenges clear. We have to look past our noses. Over the coming months, we will complete a 30-year transportation vision, outlining trends and choices facing us today and in the future.
We're going to plan for the future. We're going to get the American people on our side. And then we're going to get Congress on our side, too. We're going to get this done.
Because from Lincoln's transcontinental railroad to Eisenhower's interstate highway system, we have never been a "no country;" we are a "yes" country.
Because we are not a country that goes backwards; we are a country that moves forward.
We are not a country that stays in the past; we are a country that works, above all else, towards a brighter future.
We can get this done.
Thanks very much, everyone.