Break the Political Traffic Jam on Transportation Overhaul

Big thinking after World War II changed the nation. It must evolve again.

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Joshua Schank is transportation research director at the Bipartisan Policy Center and was the transportation policy adviser to former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Matthew Dallek is a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and teaches history and politics at the University of California Washington Center.

In recent months, the heated-up healthcare debate has short-circuited a serious and much-needed discussion about America's transportation and infrastructure agenda—and all of the economic benefits that will flow from enacting a revitalized transportation policy. Transportation has become a policy orphan amid the healthcare tsunami that's overwhelmed the news coverage of Obama's America.

The White House has argued repeatedly that unless a healthcare overhaul is achieved, the nation's economic picture will become increasingly bleak over time; transportation issues are hardly mentioned as a key to our economic future. Moreover, transportation issues are virtually absent from the broader climate change and energy debates. And, although Obama's stimulus plan has mitigated the effects of the recession, it represents a missed opportunity to promote an infrastructure-building agenda that meets the needs of American society.

Any transportation project, including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, creates jobs. But, as we make infrastructure investments to create jobs, we should also be making investments that will ensure long-term economic growth. Instead, stimulus funds are focused only on jobs and shovel-ready projects—targeting random projects with a scattershot quality about them.

The year 2009 resembles the moment in the World War II aftermath: Six decades ago, an explosion in highway and bridge building helped spark the process of suburbanization and ultimately redefined America's urban landscape. In his landmark history of suburbanization in the United States, Crabgrass Frontier, Columbia historian Kenneth T. Jackson describes how the 1956 Interstate Highway Act helped produce more than 42,000 miles of new highways. The automobile became the king of transportation in the United States.

The Act, Jackson says, "encouraged the continued outward movement of industries toward the beltways and interchanges," and it "helped continue the downward spiral of public transportation and virtually guaranteed that future urban growth would perpetuate a centerless [suburban] sprawl." Americans are still living in the world that the Highway Act established. That world is no longer sufficient to meet tomorrow's economic challenges though.

Congress and the Obama administration must begin thinking big on transportation policy—adopting an infrastructure agenda that will spur long-term growth, limit dependence on foreign oil, reduce congestion on roads and highways, and cut the number of highway fatalities. Sadly, we are a long way away in 2009 from achieving a unified vision akin to Dwight Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System.

Despite its faults, the Interstate Highway System also produced enormous benefits: It represented a clear vision, direction, and purpose for the nation and its future infrastructure that was then needed. It decisively shaped the future of a nation, from enactment to present day.

That vision was born in the mid-20th century and is woefully anachronistic in our own times. Limited access highways connecting the nation were cutting-edge technology in 1956; now they are a major factor in global climate change and oil dependence and are often highly congested, unsafe, and unreliable. Our Fifties-era highways will continue to play a vital role in the future, but they must be more efficiently utilized; transportation policy and politics must move beyond a narrow focus on separate individual modes of transportation toward a more comprehensive and systematic approach nationwide.

Our focus now must be on the transportation system as a whole, and the ends we need it to achieve, rather than on haphazardly funding large-scale projects for specific types of transportation. The original Interstate Highway vision has degenerated into a political battle over who in Congress can deliver the most goods to their constituents.