Friday, September 10, 2010

Obama, Roads, Rail and Runways

U.S. President Barack Obama has come up with a truly useful plan that if implemented will have a major and strongly positive impact on travelers. So, naturally - given the angry polarization of U.S. politcs and society generally - there is plenty of opposition to it.

Obama wants to create an infrastructure bank that would bankroll billions - $50 billion USD in the first year - to repair, modernize and extend America's crumbling transport infrastructure. It would be used to build and repair roads, rail lines - including badly needed high-speed rail like the kind common in Japan and parts of Europe - and airport runways. The idea is to create construction jobs in the near term and offer first-world transport infrastructure in the medium and long term. The U.S. has not had such high-quality infrastructure since at least the 1980s. It is now very far behind other developed nations and even some developing nations like China.

There is precedent for using public money to build up U.S. transport infrastructure - and help workers and private companies with an injection of income. In the 1950s and '60s, Washington spent an immense, and justified, amount of money building the now-stressed interstate highway system. Back in the late 1860s, the federal government poured large sums into building the first continent-spanning railroad. Both projects more than paid for themselves over the years and they helped knit together a large, diverse nation.

Obama's idea is thus both practical and visionary. Hence, it faces a long road to approval. It must be approved by Congress. And, well ... as the New York Times notes in a recent report:

"Though transportation bills usually win bipartisan support, hasty passage of Mr. Obama's plan seems unlikely, given that Congress has only a few weeks of work left before lawmakers return to their districts to campaign and that Republicans are showing little interest in giving Democrats any pre-election victories.''

If this badly needed bill does not pass, Democrats won't be the only losers. So will every American traveler and commuter of whatever political stripe and every international guest who visits the United States. For once, U.S. politicans should rise above partisan bickering and do the right thing. I'm not holding my breath, but hope springs eternal, as they say.

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