March 10, 2011

Rahall Gives Keynote Address at Transportation Convention

Washington, D.C.– U.S. Representative Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, today gave the keynote address at the 4th Annual Transportation & Infrastructure Convention in Washington, D.C.

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

Keynote Remarks of U.S. Representative Nick J. Rahall
Ranking Democratic Member
House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
4th Annual Transportation & Infrastructure Convention
Room 2325 Rayburn House Office Building
Thursday, March 10, 2011

I am pleased to join you this morning and extend my congratulations to everyone for the hard work and effort that went into assembling such a strong group of participants to address important transportation issues this week.

From the bustling Halls of Congress… to every State House, City Hall, and Town Hall across our great Nation – building a future for America’s next generation rests on the shoulders of us all.  And the 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 came to Washington and I have served as a Member of the 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.

There is very little in Congress we can all agree on – at times it often feels like we can’t even reach a consensus on the temperature outside.  But I think it’s fair to say we all agree that we need a multi-modal transportation network that is safe, efficient, well-maintained and expansive enough to keep America’s economy moving throughout the 21st Century.

I also think I can safely say that everyone in this room understands that investing in our Nation’s transportation infrastructure will create jobs and keep America’s economy on the road to recovery.

Very few, if anyone, today would argue against the value of constructing America’s Transcontinental Railroad.  That ribbon of steel bound us together as a Nation like never before.  It cost $50 million at the time.  In today’s dollars, one estimate pegs the cost of that railway at $900 million – still a steal of a deal.  As a catalyst for almost every sector of our economy for the next Century, it proved to be the deal of deals.

Today, the transportation sector accounts for 11% of our gross domestic product – approximately $1.1 trillion annually, that’s trillion with a “T” – and supports one in eight jobs.  Yet, when it comes to investing in the completion and maintenance of our national network of concrete ribbons – our National Highway System and transit needs, we seem as stalled as a Model T in the mud.  We can and we must do more to rebuild America.

Toward that end, the Transportation Committee has been conducting 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 that we kicked off the series in my hometown of Beckley, West Virginia, before crisscrossing the country.  We’ll hold our next field hearing in Chairman Mica’s home state of Florida on Monday.  I appreciate the Chairman’s willingness to hold these meeting. They have been productive and instructive.

One theme we have 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 surface transportation bill that is large enough to adequately tackle the well-documented backlog of transportation and infrastructure needs.

Certainly, the biggest hurdle to our passing such legislation 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 ensure that 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 cities.

Unfortunately, our efforts to create certainty and advance investment in surface transportation may have suffered a significant setback at the beginning of the current Congress when the new Republican Leadership changed the rules of the House regarding the Highway Trust Fund.  The change undid protections that had been crafted through the leadership of former Republican Congressman Bud Shuster to ensure that gas tax monies that flowed into the Highway Trust Fund would be used to finance transportation investments, and not as a way to mask the size of the Federal deficit.

The idea was simple: Gas taxes paid at the pump to improve highway and transit systems must be used for that purpose.  I fought side by side with Mr. Shuster for this protection in 1998 and I was disappointed when the Republicans broke the ‘trust’ of the Highway Trust Fund as their first act of the 112th Congress.

I am also disappointed to hear the calls for dramatic, mindless budget cuts. Certainly we need to tighten our budgetary belt, but I believe it is foolish to slash the job-creating muscle of our budget when we should be focusing on trimming the fat.

Recessionary times are not the best times to operate under temporary extensions of our Nation’s federal transportation programs, and yet that is where we find ourselves today.

The most recent long-term FAA reauthorization act expired September 30, 2007, and Congress has passed a series of short-term acts extending the FAA’s authority to administer aviation programs and to receive tax proceeds.

It is of the utmost importance that we move forward on a long-term reauthorization, to provide stability in funding and enhance safety for the flying public.  With that said, I could not support the FAA bill that the Republicans crafted and marked up in Committee because the bill would deny a voice to aviation and railroad workers and would break the commitment made to rural communities to ensure all Americans have access to air travel.

When the airlines were deregulated in 1978, Congress created the Essential Air Service program to subsidize air carriers for providing air service to and from selected small communities that would not, absent the subsidies, receive service.

Small and rural communities have literally grown up around EAS, which directly supports local jobs, creates a flow of goods and commerce into and out of small towns, brings families together, and links four communities in my home state of West Virginia with other cities and towns around the country and around the world.  By cutting off this critical lifeline, rural Americans were told that the FAA now stands for “find another airport.”  I think this is wrong and I will continue to work with my colleagues in a bipartisan fashion to honor the promise that Congress has made to people in rural America.

I also believe that denying a voice to aviation and railroad workers had no business in the FAA bill.  It has nothing to do with safety, it has nothing to do with improving our air transportation system, and it has nothing to do with making air service more efficient.  I will, again, continue to fight to remove this provision before the bill hits the House floor.

While the current economic climate has reduced highway and air travel, future projections show that intercity travel will increase and mobility will be constrained by existing transportation capacity limitations, so the Committee has been very active in addressing passenger rail options.

Despite wide recognition that high-speed rail can significantly reduce congestion on highways and airways, decrease our dependence on foreign oil, and reduce greenhouse emissions, the United States offers no high-speed passenger rail service unlike other major industrialized nations.

In 2008, Congress charted a new course for passenger rail in the United States with the enactment of bipartisan legislation, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act.  After years of battling starvation budgets for Amtrak, Congressional efforts to eliminate certain routes and a Bush Administration budget proposal to destroy Amtrak through bankruptcy, I was pleased the 2008 Act, for the first time in decades, set forth a new path for investing in one of America’s greatest assets:  Amtrak.

In the year after the 2008 Act, Congress provided the most significant investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak in the 1970s.  The Recovery Act provided $8 billion for development of high-speed and intercity passenger rail and $1.3 billion for Amtrak capital improvements.  An additional $2.5 billion was provided for passenger rail in the Fiscal Year 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act.

While I am pleased with the continuing efforts to invest in and improve the Northeast Corridor, one thing I believe this Congress needs to remain focused on is developing a national program.  After all, it was a national vision that led to the creation of the world’s most advanced highway and aviation networks – spurring unprecedented economic growth, fostering new communities, connecting cities, towns, and regions, and creating millions of jobs.  The Federal Government, States, local communities, and the private sector all worked together to realize that national vision.

But it did not happen overnight.  It took 60 years and $1.8 trillion to get where we are today.  That same national vision, which was established by Congress in 2008 and reiterated by President Obama in his Vision for High-Speed Rail, combined with those same partnerships, are what is needed to develop a truly national passenger rail system in the United States.

By coming together and pooling our minds, our muscle, and yes – our money – we resourceful and inspired Americans can tackle age-old challenges and craft creative solutions that will ensure our Nation a sound defense and competitive edge for years to come.

But let’s also be honest with ourselves – there is no free lunch.  It is popular in Washington to say that we are going to “do more with less,” but when the rubber meets the road, Congress is going to have to make some really tough decisions to address our Nation’s crumbling infrastructure if we are to keep pace with China, India, and our other international competitors.

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

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

Thank you all for everything you do to keep America’s economy moving.  There is no better place than right here – among seasoned mentors, experienced leaders and young minds – to plant the seeds of a stronger economy for America.

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.