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Address to the National Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon on October 13, 2011

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood

--Remarks as Prepared--

Address to the National Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon
Why We Must Pass the American Jobs Act
Thursday, October 13, 2011

Good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you for that wonderful introduction and warm welcome.  It’s great to see so many old friends. 

To President Hamrick, the Press Club members, and too many distinguished guests to single out: I’m delighted to join you for an important conversation about the number one issue on the minds of Americans today – getting our families, friends, and neighbors back to work. 

Let me also introduce Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, who can tell you about the reality in America: We have millions of people who want their jobs back – and countless construction projects waiting to get started.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to start by reading the words of a newsmaker from another time.  And I quote:

One of America’s great material blessings is the outstanding network of roads and highways that spreads across this vast continent. Freedom of travel and the romance of the road are vital parts of our heritage.  They also form a vital commercial artery unequaled anywhere else in the world.

The passage goes on:

But let's face it: Time and wear have taken their toll.  So, I'm asking the Congress to approve a new highway program.  It will stimulate 170,000 jobs, not in make-work projects but in real, worthwhile work in the hard-hit construction industries, and an additional 150,000 jobs in related industries.

As a result, the speaker concluded:

We will be preserving for future generations of Americans a highway system that has long been the envy of the world.

Now, any guesses about the orator’s identity?  President Ronald Reagan. 

The date?  November 27, 1982 – just 40 days before President Reagan made the Surface Transportation Assistance Act into the law of the land.

In a five week period, which included Christmas and New Years, Reagan’s transportation jobs bill passed a Congress controlled by an opposition party, which, only weeks before, had picked up 27 seats in the 1982 midterm elections.  And, by the way, that particular piece of legislation also extended unemployment benefits – which President Reagan himself called “badly needed assistance.”  Talk about a bipartisan jobs package.

I remember this all very clearly because I was about to start a new job as a staffer for the Republican leader, Robert Michel – the man they call the greatest Speaker the House never had.  Leader Michel fought tenaciously for President Regan’s transportation jobs bill not only because he was the president’s ally in the Congress, but also because he knew that investments in roads, bridges, and transit systems were an essential way to put our Illinois constituents back to work.

So, here we are today – three decades later – and these same American roads, bridges, and transit systems are in greater need of repair than ever before.  Today is the 35th day since President Obama took to the House rostrum and asked Congress to pass the American Jobs Act.  And unless there’s some kind of miracle between now and next Tuesday, the 40th day will come and go with no relief for people looking for work.

The fact is: We face a crisis in this country.  Our citizens are struggling amidst the worst economic conditions of our lifetimes.   Our transportation systems are overburdened and fast becoming obsolete.  Our politics are so broken that we can’t connect the people who need work with the work that needs to be done.  Our institutions of government have become so paralyzed that we can’t enact tried and true policy prescriptions – bipartisan remedies that have a track-record of improving our economic well-being.

Think about the reality I deal with every single day as transportation secretary.

America’s roads are so choked with congestion that the average commuter spends 242 percent more time stuck in traffic than when President Reagan signed that surface transportation bill in 1982.  This drains $100 billion in wasted fuel and lost productivity from our economy annually.  That’s as much as the United States spent on R&D for the entire Apollo Space Program, adjusted for inflation.

At the same time, bridges are crumbling beneath our wheels.  More than one in four of America’s bridges are substandard – including an astonishing 12 percent that are structurally deficient.  That’s 68,858 bridges that, while safe to drive on, are nearing the end of their intended life-spans. 

Just look at the Sherman Minton Bridge, which links Louisville, Kentucky, with southern Indiana.  Three weeks ago, officials discovered significant cracks in the bridge’s 49-year-old steel support beams.  As a result, they were forced to shut the whole thing down – all six lanes of I-64 and U.S. 150.  Now, the local traffic is so bad that residents have dubbed the situation “Shermageddon.”

Our aviation system is reaching its capacity, too.  The United States is now home to the world’s worst air traffic congestion. A quarter of our flights arrive more than 15 minutes late.  And our national average for delayed flights is twice that of Europe.

Meanwhile, compare this to transportation systems around the globe.
 
The Chinese just opened the world’s longest bridge – long enough to cross the English Channel with six miles to spare.  They’re also paving tens of thousands of miles of expressway.  By the end of the decade, they’ll surpass the United States in total highway distance.  And the Port of Shanghai now moves more container traffic every year than the seven top U.S. ports combined. 

Or think about this: In the fourteen countries with true high-speed rail, passengers can ride a total of more than 15,000 miles at speeds faster than 220 miles-per-hour.  In the United States, they can ride exactly zero.

This just about sums it up: As recently as 2005, the World Economic Forum ranked America’s infrastructure the best in the world. Today, we aren’t even in the top ten.

What’s more, while it may feel like we’re saving a few bucks by doing nothing, the long term costs of inaction are staggering.  One recent report estimates that our poor infrastructure shaves .2 percentage points off our GDP every year. 

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and others conducted a study that said our deferred maintenance adds $175 billion to our national deficit annually.  By 2035, our bill for deferred transportation maintenance will be someplace in the neighborhood of $5 trillion.  Just for comparison’s sake, that’s roughly the size of Japan’s entire economy.

Of course, this all is taking place at a time when millions of Americans are looking for their jobs back.  Many more are struggling to make ends meet as they work fewer hours for less pay. 

This is more than an economic problem.  This is an opportunity we’re wasting.

Each successive day that Congress finds a reason not to act is another day that an unemployed mom or dad decides between the groceries and the rent.  It’s another day that, for someone, the American dream of buying a home or putting a kid through college slips further from reach.

A lot has changed in this town since I first arrived 30 years ago.  But nothing’s changed more than the evolution of a culture in which elected officials are rewarded for intransigence.  For too many, compromise has become a dirty word – and cooperation an unforgivable sin.

I’m not one of these people who pines for a yesterday that we remember as far better than it actually was.  There was a time when members of Congress got into fist fights on the House floor.  A sitting Vice President once shot and killed the former treasury secretary.  Politics has never been for the faint of heart. 

But even so, partisan rancor somehow feels worse today than yesterday.  You know the pattern.  One side reaches out.  The other digs in its heels.  Nothing gets done.  The commentators obsess on the cable news shows about who’s up and who’s down – like government is some kind of endless football game.  The voters tune out.  “A pox on both your houses,” they say.

After 14 years in Congress myself, I was all too familiar with this dynamic when President Obama asked me to serve as a Republican in his Democratic administration.  But I accepted his invitation not just in spite of our differences on a small handful of issues, but because of them.

You see, President Obama didn’t ask me to switch from one side to the other.  He asked for my ideas.  He asked for my perspective. He asked me to help solve the American peoples’ problems – to stand up for compromise and cooperation in those areas where Democrats and Republicans have almost always agreed.  And there’s no better example of a traditionally bipartisan issue than transportation. 

There’s no such thing as a Democratic or Republican bridge – and there’s no such thing as a Democratic or Republican job repairing it when it’s in danger of falling down.  Our infrastructure belongs to all of us.  It’s more than the way we get from one place to another; it’s the way we lead our lives and pursue our dreams.  And furthermore – especially in this economy – job-creation should be everyone’s number one priority.

That’s why, when I was in Congress, the House passed America’s last two transportation bills with 417 votes in 2005 and 337 votes in 1998 – a true show of bipartisanship.  That’s why President Obama proposed the American Jobs Act, a package of historically bipartisan policies.  That’s why I’m barnstorming the country and knocking on every door in Congress to fight for it.  Now is the time to pass this bill.

Here’s what President Obama put forward. 

First, the American Jobs Act includes a $50 billion immediate investment in construction jobs rebuilding America’s roadways, railways, transit systems, and airports.  It will hire American workers to upgrade 150,000 miles of road, to lay or maintain 4,000 miles of track, to restore 150 miles of runways, and to put in place a next-generation air-traffic control system that will reduce travel time and delays.  Nothing partisan about that.

Second, the American Jobs Act includes a National Infrastructure Bank, with $10 billion in upfront funding.  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.

Third, through a recently issued memorandum, President Obama has already directed our departments and agencies to identify high impact, job-creating infrastructure projects so that we can fast-track them through the review and permitting processes.  At the Department of Transportation, we picked six to start with – including replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York and Whittier Bridge in Massachusetts; extending transit systems in Los Angeles and Baltimore; and installing NextGen technology at two Houston airports.  Seems to me that Democrats and Republicans can both agree that we should speed up project delivery times.

Finally, all of this is funded without adding a dime to the deficit.  The president proposed that we pay for the American Jobs Act through his long-term plan to pay down 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.  It’s about choices.  Should we repair those 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?

Look, we’ve heard economists and analysts of every political persuasion tell us that the president’s jobs bill will boost the economy and spur hiring. 

More importantly, we’ve heard the uproar of enthusiasm from the American people.  I’ve travelled 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.” 

Just in the month since President Obama sent the American Jobs Act to Congress, I’ve met with construction workers building St. Paul’s new light rail line, Charlotte’s new streetcar system, and Oakland’s new air traffic control tower.  I’ve visited with leaders of America’s labor movement at the Laborers’ International convention in Las Vegas, with business-people in Kansas City, and with economic development officials in Anchorage. 

Their response to President Obama’s call to action has been overwhelming.  At every stop, workers are shouting “pass this bill!” Business men and women tell us we owe job-creators – and our future – the safest, fastest, most efficient ways to move people and products.

Moreover, this is no partisan sentiment.  In one poll conducted earlier this year, two of three voters – and 59 percent of Tea Party supporters – said making improvements in transportation is extremely important.  Unlikely allies like the Chamber of Commerce’s Tom Donahue and the AFL-CIO’s Rich Trumka are putting their full-throated advocacy behind transportation investments.  I’ve talked with both of them about it at great length.

Many governors also are rejecting the premise that jobs on transportation projects should be proxies in Congress’ political warfare.  At the Sherman Minton Bridge, Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and Governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican, are working together to repair and re-open the major commercial artery that unites their states.

Now, I mentioned my service with Republican Leader Bob Michel.  He knew how to play partisan and when to talk tough.  But he also knew how and when to sit down across from the other guy to hammer out a deal because it was the best thing for the American people. 

This is one of those moments when the American people are counting on their representatives in Washington to set aside their differences and achieve the possible, not the perfect.  They should expect nothing less. 

Nobody can or will get everything they want.  And I’ve personally delivered that message to some of my former colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle.

All those years ago, when President Reagan signed his transportation jobs bill into law, he said that America could, once again, quote:

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.  The canals that first made interstate commerce possible; the transcontinental railroad that connected our coasts; the interstate highway system that enabled a half-century of unrivaled opportunity and prosperity – American workers dreamed these things up.  American workers wielded the shovels, forged the iron, 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, yes, 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.

This was America’s recipe for success.  This was the way we took responsibility for the future.

The United States isn’t a nation that just talks about building big things only to get mired in the smallness of politics.  We don’t skirt tough issues and kick challenges down the road.  That’s beneath us.  We’re better than that.

In America, we do big things.  We solve problems.  And 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.

With that, I’ll be happy to take your questions.  Thank you all very much.

Updated: Monday, April 9, 2012