Highway Builders to Party Leaders: The Future Is “More Than Just Roadways”

Over the past two weeks, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association has sent letters to the Republican National Committee [PDF] and the Democratic National Committee [PDF], asking them to consider inserting a plank in their platforms about transportation. And they were clear in their letter that, despite being major cheerleaders for road-building, the future they see is multi-modal.

ARTBA reminds Republicans that the Transcontinental Railroad was their idea -- and a good one, at that. Image: Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

They also made a strong argument for transportation as a federal responsibility. To many, this is a no-brainer. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) likes to remind people of the example of the Kansas Turnpike, built in 1954, when transportation was left to the states. Oklahoma ran out of funding for the project — “So for the next 18 months, the turnpike ended in Amos Switzer’s field at the Kansas/Oklahoma border,” DeFazio said. “For months on end, Amos was left to fish drivers out of his field until the start of the interstate system that finished this badly needed roadway.”

Conservatives in Congress have been arguing the unthinkable: taking the country back to a state-based system where there’s no federal role in transportation. “We settled that debate with Dwight David Eisenhower,” DeFazio said.

ARTBA wants to settle this argument once and for all with a little founding-father-speak — always popular with the right. Here they bring out the big guns — George Washington himself — who in 1785 said, “The credit, the saving, and convenience of this country all require that our great roads [and by this I'm sure he also meant light rail, bullet trains, and the national bike network] leading fromone public place to another should be straightened and established by law… To me these things seem indispensably necessary.” Not to mention that the federal responsibility for “post roads” is written into the constitution.

Writing to the Democrats, ARTBA celebrates Thomas Jefferson, who authorized funding for the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois; Woodrow Wilson, who signed the Federal-Aid Roads Act; Franklin D. Roosevelt, from whom infrastructure building was a key strategy out of the Great Depression; and other Democrats right up to 2008. Take note, straphangers and complete streets advocates: Tailoring your message to butter up your audience is a lobbying strategy well worth stealing from these guys.

Addressing the Republicans, ARTBA highlights the policy platform of the first Republican National Convention, held in Philadelphia in 1856, which called for the building of a trans-continental railroad — a call heeded within six years by Republican President Abraham Lincoln. And then, of course, there’s Eisenhower’s interstate extravaganza… the list goes on. The 2008 GOP platform said, “We urgently need to preserve the highway, transit, and air facilities built over the last century so they can serve generations to come.” That’s a fix-it-first, multi-modal vision we can all get behind.

To win our long national battle with traffic congestion, ARTBA has two recommendations.

One, the group says, we need to get past our paralysis around revenues and find a way to make the Highway Trust Fund solvent and sustainable. And two, we need to build a 21st century transportation network focused on what they call Critical Commerce Corridors:

That is, adding new surface transportation capacity that is focused exclusively on helping secure the safe and efficient movement of freight.  3C would be more than just roadways; it represents a comprehensive vision of multi-modal integration, making full use, for example, of the economic value of rights-of-way as a new source of revenues.

“It means something when the biggest advocate for building roads in the nation comes out and says federal transportation investment needs to focus on ‘more than just roadways,’” wrote Sean Jeans Gail of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. ”While NARP and ARTBA will continue to disagree on many of the specifics of transportation policy, it is an important step to move the conversation from ‘should the U.S. have a multimodal transportation network?’ to ‘what kind of multimodal transportation network should the U.S. have?’”

Jeans Gail also notes that the RNC quotes Republican superhero Ronald Reagan, who in 1973 spoke against the “strange sort of no-growth, no-development syndrome” overtaking the country. Opponents of high-speed rail in California and elsewhere should take heed of Reagan’s warning, Jeans Gail wrote. Though “well-intentioned people” argue that the state can’t afford the train, they fail to consider the cost of no-growth and no-development. “For California alone, the California High Speed Rail Authority’s planners put that cost at around $171 billion [PDF], to be spent on 2,300 new miles of highway, 115 new airport gates, and 4 new runways.”