May 02, 2011

Rahall Addresses 2011 International Transportation and Economic Development Conference

Charleston, WV– U.S. Representative Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, today spoke at the 2011 International Transportation and Economic Development Conference (I-TED) in Charleston.

Below are Rahall’s remarks, as prepared for delivery:

Remarks of U.S. Representative Nick J. Rahall
Democratic Ranking Member, House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure
International Transportation Economic Development Conference
Charleston, WV
May 2, 2011 – 8:30 AM

I am pleased to join you today and I commend everyone who worked so hard to put this conference together.

Earlier this year, two strange Washington bedfellows – the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO – came together after President Obama’s State of the Union Address to say: “Whether it is building roads, bridges, high-speed broadband, energy systems or schools, these projects not only create jobs and demand for businesses, they are also investments in building the modern infrastructure our country needs to compete in a global economy.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Despite all the heated rhetoric in Washington today – as one side tries to outdo the other in demonstrating their commitment to cutting the budget and being good stewards of the public’s dime –  such unlikely alliances are forming.

They are forming because many agree that a strong, reliable, and consistent federal investment in our Nation’s infrastructure will create American jobs and keep our economy moving throughout the 21st century.  Without a doubt, the surest pathways to opportunity and success are America’s railways, roadways, and runways.

Transportation has always been a top priority of mine.  The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was the first Committee assignment I sought when I went to Washington as a Freshman Member of the House and I have served as a Member of that Committee for 34 years – my entire tenure in Congress.

So, I was especially proud and humbled when my colleagues nominated me to serve as the top Democrat on the Committee for the 112th Congress.

Today, the transportation sector accounts for 11% of our gross domestic product – approximately $1.1 trillion annually – and supports one in eight jobs.

Congress has long recognized the critical link between transportation investments and economic development.  We know that for every $1 billion invested in transportation infrastructure, we create or sustain 35,000 jobs and generate $6.2 billion in economic activity.

Simply put, these are investments in America’s future that create and expand economic opportunity today.

Spurring economic growth – getting more people on payrolls – also keeps more people out of the safety net programs, like Medicaid, while generating revenues to cut the deficits and eliminate debt.  Most importantly, a strong, robust transportation system also helps to ensure that America continues to be a good place to do business.

Despite the significant investments that have been made to date, America’s infrastructure is crumbling and outdated, posing an increasing threat to our global economic competitiveness.  Arteries of commerce are clogged with congestion, resulting in billions of hours wasted, billions of gallons of fuel needlessly spent, and billions of dollars down the drain for families and businesses.

People and products are trapped on tarmacs because we are using radar technology that harkens back to an era when disco was king.  Amtrak is sharing the track with freight and cargo while the development of high-speed rail in other countries passes us by.

We have the technology to order a pizza online, but trucks have to wait in line at marine ports because we don’t use a high-tech scheduling system for picking up cargo.  And too many of the bridges that link communities together are structurally unsound, creating additional barriers for local trade.

Despite these tremendous backlogged needs, the budget that the new leadership in the House of Representatives passed a few weeks ago proposes to cut $318 billion in federal transportation investments from current levels over the next decade.

That budget would cut investment in highways, highway safety, and transit by about one-third: one-third less bridge repair, one-third less safety improvement, and one-third less bus service.

Today, China spends nine percent of its GDP per year on infrastructure.  India spends five percent of its GDP per year on infrastructure.  The United States of America only spends 1.9 percent of its GDP per year on infrastructure.

While China, India, and our other international competitors are rushing full-speed ahead on massive infrastructure investments, Republicans are hitting the brakes on making investments in America’s future.  In order to keep pace and extend our lead in the global economy, America must invest more, not less.

Earlier this spring, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee conducted a nationwide series of field hearings and listening sessions in an effort to gather input from local communities as we craft a multi-year surface transportation bill.  I am pleased to note we kicked off the series in my hometown of Beckley before crisscrossing the country from coast to coast.

We heard from communities large and small, but one theme we heard over and over and over again concerns the tremendous uncertainty that is created for states and local communities when Congress fails to enact a multi-year bill that is large enough to adequately tackle the well-documented backlog of transportation and infrastructure needs.      

Historically speaking, transportation policy is one area where Congress tends to come together for the common good.  At the end of the day, planes, trains, and automobiles are not partisan priorities – they are the very lifelines of America’s economy.

The last transportation bill – SAFETEA-LU – received the support of 96% of the House and 89% of the Senate.  The one before that – TEA-21 – passed the House with nearly 80% of Members supporting it and the Senate approving it by unanimous consent.

It is in this bipartisan spirit that I hope Congress can come together once again to craft a multi-year surface transportation bill that will give states, tribes, local communities and contractors a predictable environment in which to bid, break ground, and build.

Certainly, the biggest hurdle is the matter of funding.  It is my opinion that all funding and financing options must be on the table.  We must find ways to secure a dedicated pool of federal revenue sufficient to meet the growing needs of our aging transportation system; we can’t depend on bonding and borrowing alone.

As well, any financing mechanism should include a formula of fairness to commerce and commuters alike – from our most rural corners to our most urban city centers.

There is no doubt that Washington needs to tighten its budgetary belt and continue to take aggressive steps to reduce the federal deficit so that our children and grandchildren are not saddled with a huge Federal debt. 

But I also believe it is foolish to slash the job-creating muscle of our budget – such as transportation investments – when we should be focusing on trimming the fat. We must continue to invest in America’s future if we are serious about retiring the debt of the past.

Addressing our transportation investment needs will require political will and courage to tackle the challenges and realities that have been avoided for too long.

I strongly supported the Administration’s plan to invest $556 billion to restore and build a transportation system for the 21st century because I think it’s the appropriate size and scope.  I was hoping they were going to shed a little more light on how to provide the necessary funding, but I take them at their word that they will work with Congress to do so.

America can continue to lead the worldwide economy and win the future, but we must at least invest as much in ourselves as our competitor nations are investing in their own futures.  Our competitors aren’t waiting; we must not wait either.

We can boost competitiveness and trim the budget, but both will require concerted thought, backbone, and willingness to compromise and reach a consensus.  Crafting and passing a new surface transportation bill that addresses our transportation needs sooner, rather than later, must be a priority.

I am honored to be part of this work – representing the citizens of southern West Virginia and the transportation needs of our Nation.  I look forward to our opportunities and successes that lie ahead.

Thank you.