Changing the conversation

February 2012 » Columns » BEYOND WORDS
Paul Yarossi

As the debate over jobs and funding drags on, it has occurred to me, as well as many other transportation professionals, that we need to change our position on the subject of maintaining and improving our nation's infrastructure. It's painfully clear our transportation inventory is aging, and our country needs to be more resilient against natural and manmade disasters. We know globalization is driving a need for better intermodal connections to encourage trade – that our economy is challenged and job creation is paramount – and we must meet these demands or fall behind. Until recently, our arguments for funding transportation have necessarily centered solely on all of these critical needs. Our industry has centered the discussion on what the American people won't have without action by our political leaders.

Photo: Bouygues Civil Works Florida

While this funding uncertainty has caused many state departments of transportation to postpone or cancel vital projects and related jobs, our message has yet to motivate politicians to compromise on a multiyear reauthorization bill. Recent activity by the House and Senate to move a transportation bill forward is encouraging. However, that movement is tempered by recent appropriation activities that reduce last year's funding to states by $2 billion, putting 50,000 to 70,000 jobs in jeopardy.

Rather than sending distress calls, we need to emphasize and illustrate infrastructure's return on investment. ROI is something everyone understands and values.

The historic precedent and constitutional mandate is clear – meeting our nation's infrastructure needs is foremost to our interstate commerce, safety, security, and global competitiveness. Our best-regarded presidents supported infrastructure and fully understood its ROI.

Our elected officials, and all Americans, can help shape the nation's transportation future and contribute to our nation's prosperity. Congress has the opportunity to move our transportation infrastructure program forward with a new, multimodal transportation plan for highways, rail, air, and water. It can start with a robust highway and transit bill with adequate investment levels and needed policy reforms. America could be home to an integrated transportation network connecting our ports and manufacturing areas, while transporting people safely and efficiently, all within the context of protecting the environment.

Healthy infrastructure supports a healthy economy, attracting new employers and improving the overall quality of life in our communities. We consistently see paybacks along the roads, rails, and bridges that get us to our workplaces, schools, and other destinations. These dividends – safe, secure, efficient transportation – pay us back in our day-to-day lives well in excess of every dollar we invest. Moody's estimates that every additional dollar spent on infrastructure generates a $1.44 increase in gross domestic product.

For these reasons alone, the transportation industry should not accept fewer federal dollars, and the American public should not accept further deterioration of the infrastructure they rely on. It is proven that people are willing to pay when they know what they will get in return. In fact, more than 70 percent of local infrastructure funding has passed in the last five years. Congress needs to hear this.

In an era of limited resources, the demand for true infrastructure investment remains high. It's time to bring all forms of funding, financing, and technology-based tools to the table. It's time to change how we plan and deliver infrastructure projects. It's time to change the conversation – and keep moving forward, working diligently until we achieve our goal to keep America safe, mobile, and economically competitive. End of conversation.

Paul Yarossi is president of HNTB Holdings Ltd. and chairman of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

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