Cross-posted courtesy of The Bellingham Herald.
Twenty-nine years ago this November, an American president of one party asked a Congress controlled by another to pass a transportation jobs bill. "It will stimulate 170,000 jobs in the hard-hit construction industries," he argued, "and an additional 150,000 jobs in related industries." As a result, he concluded, "we will be preserving for future generations of Americans a highway system that has long been the envy of the world."
That president was Ronald Reagan, a Republican. Within 40 days, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate approved major legislation putting their constituents back to work rebuilding our roads, bridges and transit systems.
Clearly, America's politics have changed since 1982. But America's problems look astonishingly similar. Our citizens are struggling amid the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, and many of our transportation systems are overburdened and at risk of obsolescence.
This week, the United States Senate will have the opportunity to do something about it when voting on the transportation component of President Barack Obama's American Jobs Act.
If Congress fails to act yet again, we all will miss out on a singular opportunity - a chance to ease congestion on traffic-clogged roads, repair America's overcrowded transit networks and structurally deficient bridges, put in place a next-generation air traffic control system that will reduce travel times and delays, and, most of all, get Americans' families, friends and neighbors back to work.
If Congress passes the president's transportation plan, the United States will make an immediate investment in construction jobs upgrading 150,000 miles of road, laying or maintaining 4,000 miles of track, and restoring 150 miles of runways.
We also will establish a national infrastructure bank. The bank will operate independently and issue loans emphasizing two criteria: how badly a project is needed and how much good it would do for the economy. No boondoggles. No bridges to nowhere. No unnecessary red tape.
Finally, all of this will be funded without adding a dime to the deficit. President Obama proposed that we pay for these investments through his long-term plan to slash our debt - a plan that cuts spending and asks the wealthiest citizens and biggest corporations to kick in their fair share in taxes.
This is about priorities. Should we repair America's 69,000 worn out bridges or keep tax loopholes for oil companies? Should we hire construction workers to build a national high-speed rail network that connects 80 percent of Americans or let billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries?
There is no such thing as a Democratic or Republican bridge - and there is no such thing as a Democratic or Republican job repairing that bridge when it is in danger of falling down.
Our infrastructure belongs to all of us. It is more than the way we get from one place to another; it is the way we lead our lives and pursue our dreams. Furthermore, job creation should be everyone's No. 1 priority, especially in this economy.
We have heard economists and analysts of every political persuasion tell us that President Obama's jobs bill will boost the economy and spur hiring.
More importantly, we have heard the uproar of enthusiasm from the American people. I have traveled to 200 cities in 48 states during the last three years. Everywhere I go, people come up to me and say the same thing: "Put my neighbors to back to work rebuilding our country."
Three decades ago, when President Reagan signed his transportation jobs bill into law, he said that America could, once again, "ensure for our children a special part of their heritage - a network of highways and mass transit that has enabled our commerce to thrive, our country to grow, and our people to roam freely and easily to every corner of our land."
Our transportation system is a special part of our heritage.
American workers designed the canals that first made interstate commerce possible, the transcontinental railroad that connected our coasts, and the interstate highway system that supported a half-century of unrivaled opportunity and prosperity.
American workers wielded the shovels, laid the tracks and poured the concrete that brought these things to life. American workers passed these things on to us - their children and grandchildren. And American workers paid the taxes that were necessary to finance these investments in their tomorrows. They sacrificed so their neighbors would have jobs, so their businesses would flourish, so all of us would reap the benefits of living in the best country in the world.
The United States is not a nation that just talks about building big only to get mired in the smallness of politics. We are better than that.
In America, we do big things. We solve tough problems.
If Congress passes President Obama's American Jobs Act, we can once again put people back to work making our nation's transportation system the "envy of the world," just to borrow a phrase from President Reagan.