Saturday, January 30, 2010

Obama's Transport Report Card: a so-So C+

The National Business Travel Association - which tracks developments in transport in the United States and advocates for industry stakeholders - just issued a report card for U.S. President Barack Obama. Obama's grade: a less than inspiring C+, just about average.

To put matters into perspective: Obama has held office for just a year, and he has a lot on his plate: global warming, war and peace, the national and global economy and more. Moreover, the NBTA is just one group. But it is a well-informed and attentive group, and the organization's assessment of what Obama's doing and not doing is worth taking seriously.

The administration's highest grade - an A - comes on infrastructure, due mostly to the $8 billion Obama has pledged for much-needed, long-delayed high-speed rail projects. It's great to see the U.S. take a leaf from Japan, China and Europe's book and pay attention to rail again, but airports, highways, bridges, tunnels and other essential pieces of travel infrastructure need serious tending to, as well.

At the other end of the grading system, the administration gets an F for not actively supporting long-term funding for an updated, next-generation air traffic control system at the always-stressed Federal Aviation Administration. It gets an incomplete for White House efforts on energy and climate change.

Other grades fall in-between the very top and the very bottom. There's a B+ for airline performance and aviation congestion - but some perspective is needed there, too. On-time flights and congestion have improved marginally in the U.S. due to the simple fact that fewer people are flying into the headwinds of the Great Recession. The real test will come when travelers return to the sky and the road as the recession finally winds down.

Michael W. McCormick, the NBTA's executive director and chief operating officer, sums things up this way:

"The refusal of our government to prioritize the modernization of our aviation system is a significant failure. Our economy relies heavily on the efficiency of air travel. In fact, business travel alone contributes $260 billion to the U.S. economy. We've found that investment in business travel could lead to the creation of millions of new jobs.''

One could add the fact that these aren't solely American issues. The U.S. has the largest air traffic system in the world. What happens in the U.S. has major consequences for travel everywhere. Let's hope Obama earns a steadily rising grade in the years to come.

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