Today’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report is a stunner, with only a net total of 18,000 new jobs created in June and the unemployment rate nudging upward to 9.2 percent. Meanwhile, conservatives in Congress have been literally leaving new jobs stranded on crowded, crumbling highways. The negligible jobs growth reported today is one consequence.
Republicans on the House Transportation Committee on Thursday released a six-year spending plan—perhaps better described as a non-spending plan—that blows an opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and will continue America’s slide into second-class status globally in the quality of its transportation network. The House plan authorizes a total of $230 billion for both highways and public transportation; that’s about a 20 percent cut from the spending authorized by the last six-year transportation bill, which was signed by President Bush in 2003. That bill expired in 2009; stopgap measures, including special Recovery Act funding, have kept transportation projects limping along since.
That previous bill, forged by a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican president who made transportation spending the target of one of his few veto threats, helped bring us to where we are today: ranking 23rd globally in the quality of our infrastructure, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Competitiveness Report. That same bill, named the "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users," left the nation with a legacy of having fallen behind India, China, and Brazil in its ability to have a transportation network that keeps pace with economic needs, the Urban Land Institute noted in a recent, often scathing report.
The chairman of the committee, Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., says the plan conforms to the budget outline written by Rep. Paul Ryan, D-Wis., which restricts transportation spending to the revenues raised by the federal gasoline tax. That tax, 18.4 cents on each gallon of gasoline, hasn’t been increased since 1993. If that tax had been indexed to the rate of inflation, the tax would be 28 cents today, enough for an additional $120 billion in spending. And the evidence for the need for that additional $120 billion is easy to find:
- According to the group Transportation for America, one of every nine highway bridges in the U.S. are "structurally deficient,"requiring significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.
- The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that traffic jams caused by insufficient infrastructure waste 4 billion hours of commuters’ time and nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline a year.
- The American Society of Civil Engineers grades the state of our nation’s roads a "D-" and the quality of public transportation a "D." According to Department of Transportation ratings, more than 50 percent of highway miles are traveled on roads in less than "good" condition.
- The American Society of Civil Engineers notes that while automobile vehicle miles traveled increased 94% and truck miles traveled increased 105% between 1980 and 2005, highway lane-miles grew by only 3.5%.
- An Associated Press investigation earlier this week found that while many public transportation systems are seeing record ridership, they are "trimming service, raising fares and postponing badly needed upgrades just to maintain daily operations" because of budget cuts.
Yet House conservatives (and, for that matter, the Obama administration) won’t broach the subject of increasing the gasoline tax or, anticipating a future of electric and other alternative fuel vehicles, new funding solutions to pay for transportation needs.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, says the spending cuts forced by the House transportation plan would mean the loss of 490,627 highway construction jobs and almost 100,000 transit-related jobs. On the other hand, $120 billion of additional spending above the level proposed by the House Transportation Committee Republicans would, based on transportation industry and Department of Transportation estimates, support between 3.5 million and 4 million jobs.
Today’s jobs report underscores the need for those jobs. Just in June, construction jobs were down 9,000, manufacturing jobs were only up 6,000 and transportation jobs were only up 3,600 jobs. State and local governments shed 25,000 jobs, and the federal government shed an additional 14,000 jobs.
The Democrats on the Senate side come closer to the mark on transportation funding, but for only two years. A proposal backed by Boxer would be a stopgap, $109 billion plan that would keep transportation projects funded into 2013, with general revenues supplementing gasoline tax funds.
And that’s just to shore up our transportation network. There are millions of more jobs to be done to shore up our crumbling water and sewer systems, which spill an estimated 1.26 trillion gallons of untreated sewage every single year that cost us $50.6 billion to clean up; an energy grid with outages that cost the nation as much as $180 billion annually; and public buildings, particularly schools.
According to the World Economic Forum, while the European Union nations on average spend 5 percent of their gross domestic product on infrastructure, and China spends 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, the United States spends a measly 2.4 percent of its GDP on infrastructure. Conservative politicians often talk about what they don’t want to leave behind for their children and grandchildren. Based on their spending priorities, here is what they do want to leave behind for future generations: collapsed bridges, crumbled roads, rusted rails, broken-down public transit vehicles and a national economy that literally cannot move forward.
There is another way, and today’s jobs report is a wake-up call. Instead of allowing conservatives to take us backward down a cracked, dangerous road that would not only mean missed job opportunities but continued erosion of our capacity to compete globally, let’s demand immediate congressional action on a transportation bill that will put millions of the unemployed to work and make the nation more economically (and fuel-) efficient. Make a national infrastructure bank a part of the plan, to leverage private sector investment. Don’t shy away from making the case for a gasoline tax increase: the head of General Motors this week called for raising the gasoline tax to $1, which would encourage consumers to demand more fuel-efficient vehicles and encourage car companies to make them. (That would also encourage more investment in and use of public transportation.) After all, as USA Today recently noted, Americans now pay "the lowest gasoline taxes since the early days of the automobile."
In short, let’s get to work putting people to work on making it easier for all of us to get to work.
Eric Hunt contributed to this post.