The Transportation President
Despite the fact that we are about 600 days away from the actual election, another Presidential campaign is underway. While this could mean a national debate on several critical issues, transportation is not likely to be one of them. But this should not be and does not have to be the case.
Transportation has struggled to gain ground as a national issue for the last several decades. While President Obama has talked about transportation more than any President in recent memory, discussing it primarily as a method of creating jobs, his big ideas and proposals have seen limited success so far. When he entered office the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) was in crisis, as Congress decided to invest more in transportation than they anticipated in future revenues, and that crisis continues more or less unabated. The President has yet to suggest a long-term solution to this problem, much less push to implement one. The administration’s latest funding proposal includes using corporate tax reform to bail out the HTF for a few years until the money runs out and we face an even bigger deficit.
But the President is hardly the only one to blame. Transportation is rarely thought of as a salient national issue. It tends to be bipartisan, since everyone agrees that it is a net positive, and most of Congress recognizes the essential federal role in transportation. However, this bipartisanship also means that neither party can raise money or energize their base by talking about transportation. Moreover, citizens tend to think of transportation as inherently local, despite the fact that the federal government provides approximately 45% of the funding for capital investment in highways, bridges, and public transit. Local and state officials may win or lose elections based on a transportation project or funding mechanism – Senators and Presidents do not. Unsurprisingly, polls show that people are consistently more likely to approve new spending on transportation when they know what they are getting. It is virtually impossible to do this at the federal level, especially in a political environmental where earmarks are banned and new taxes are considered impossible.
This is no way to treat a sector of our economy that not only accounts for approximately 10% of gross domestic product, but also fuels virtually all economic activity by moving goods and people. It is also a sector responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 Americans per year, primarily via automobile accidents. Failing to address this critical national issue means putting our economic competitiveness and personal safety at risk.
Therefore, it would be productive for presidential candidates to find some way to talk about transportation that can actually move us forward. The following are some ideas for politically useful and accurate ways they could do so:
Don’t talk about crumbling bridges – talk about improving safety.
Given the clear need for greater investment in our infrastructure, it is tempting for candidates to talk about crumbling roads and bridges, and the need to fix them. It’s a trap. Americans know that the bridge they drive over probably isn’t going to fall down, and that while their roads and rails might need substantial improvement, they are slowly deteriorating but do not appear to be on the verge of collapse. The imagery of “crumbling bridges” is intended to scare people into making transportation investments. But the reason we need to make capital investments is primarily about economics. When we neglect our infrastructure, it slows the economy by creating delays, and increases the costs of repairs or reconstruction in the future.
There are, however, actual safety problems in transportation that need to be addressed, primarily on the operations side rather than capital. While we have made great progress in addressing highway safety, bringing fatality rates down dramatically over the last few decades, people are demanding a much higher level of safety and security. Witness recent “zero deaths” campaigns in cities around the world, where people are no longer accepting that anyone has to die because they were trying to go somewhere. Regulation of vehicle safety and crude oil by rail also remain issues of serious concern, and while air travel has never been safer, people still expect that the federal government will do everything possible to prevent plane crashes. A candidate who recognizes these issues and the need for improved safety – in a responsible way – could generate support because everyone uses transportation and everyone wants to be safe.
Don’t talk about creating jobs – talk about fostering innovation through wiser investment.
In this country when federal officials do refer to transportation benefits, they typically talk about creating jobs. While this is clearly a positive benefit from transportation, it is also a benefit from paying someone to dig a hole and fill it, and voters see through this (also most voters are unlikely to benefit from a new construction job). The issue is not how to create the most jobs but rather how to build the best economic future. This means not just spending more, but spending more wisely. As important as this concept might be, most candidates for President likely believe it is too difficult to sell.
This is a mistake. Focusing on wiser investment, rather than increased investment, enables a discussion about what wiser investment actually means and avoids contentious issues about taxation. One place where wiser investment excites people is in the area of technology. New applications on phones and the rise of the sharing economy have enabled multiple new transportation options such as bike-sharing, car-sharing, transportation network companies, wayfinding and parking applications, and new private mass transit options. Autonomous vehicles actually exist, are capturing people’s imaginations, and could be on the road by the end of the decade. The federal government can and should play a role in fostering these innovations, by providing seed money for research and pilot programs, and by ensuring that regulatory burdens do not hinder innovation. People want a president who is cutting edge, and understands how technology is changing their lives.
Don’t talk about big projects – talk about bipartisan cooperation.
Elected officials like to think about transportation in terms of building new, tangible, lasting assets. They know that few people remember (or feel the need to re-elect) the person who led the reconstruction of a road that provided no new benefits but saved future generations large sums of money. However, while that strategy may have worked in a budgetary environment where there were plentiful resources, it is unlikely to work now. President Obama’s high-speed rail program, which was intended to be a bold and visionary project, instead became snarled in partisanship and division. It is also not what is needed at this time in our history. Instead we need to make strategic, targeted investments in capacity while also repairing what we have. Sounds boring.
Perhaps it would be less boring and more salient if framed as an issue of bipartisanship. While the primary elections tend to work against this concept, in the general election there should be ample opportunity for candidates to attempt to demonstrate that they can work with the other party. What better way to work with them than in transportation? In an era of hyper-partisanship, transportation remains one of the few issues where bipartisan cooperation is actually possible. For example, reauthorizations for FAA, surface transportation, and water have all been enacted in the last few years, during a time when Congress was having trouble agreeing on when to have lunch. The candidate that can sell himself or herself as having bipartisan credentials in the general election could have an advantage. But bipartisanship generally cannot be discussed in isolation. Transportation provides a tangible and worthwhile example of where actual bipartisan work could be done.
Transportation will never be health care or defense, or at the forefront of the culture wars (we hope). It will always be perceived as primarily a local rather than national issue. But in reality it is a national issue and this means that presidential candidates can potentially seize upon it.
The candidate who seizes upon transportation as an issue could see electoral benefits by focusing people on a strategy for economic growth, safety, and bipartisan cooperation. But it will take more than talking about mom, apple pie, and self-driving cars. It will take real leadership to present ideas about how to pay for these necessary improvements. In recent decades, few prominent officials have been able to do this. Perhaps the one who does might wind up in the Oval Office.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.