Higher Stakes

President Obama’s call last week for simple, straightforward extensions of national transportation programs was well reasoned and measured, and a desperately worrisome window on the state of politics and business in the United States today.

The stakes for the transportation world, and for any business connected to trade and the flow of goods, have grown markedly this summer. That’s what prompted the president’s new call for a national infrastructure plan and for some rare displays of agreement across the political divide, with David Chavern of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce joining Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO at the president’s White House event.

That kind of common purpose would be more inspiring if the goals weren’t so despairingly low.

This wasn’t a call, after all, for a bold vision for investment in global trade that would shore up the U.S. economy and provide a foundation for a new era of prosperity. This was simply a plea for a basic extension of a stopgap spending measure that would keep programs sputtering along in the holding pattern that’s existed for several years now.

In Washington today, that counts as vision because the alternative, as we saw over the summer, is so much worse.

In fact, transportation programs are the next battleground in the nation’s capital, and business has a lot to lose.

Some lawmakers, apparently emboldened by the summer showdown, are setting the stage to take transportation in the United States back to another era by largely eliminating the federal government’s role in planning, supporting and funding infrastructure projects. The first step, reportedly supported by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Rep. Floyd Flake, R-Ariz., would be to eliminate the federal fuel tax that funds highway programs.

This is the tax that’s remained unchanged, at 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel, since 1993 and been renewed almost invisibly since then. It’s the revenue behind the sprawling interstate highway system and the ribbons of roads across the country that connect communities and provide for interstate commerce.

But a misguided movement would do away with a vision of national transportation networks in favor of a throwback to another era, one that looks more like the Third World than a 21st century economic power. That would be damaging to the U.S. economy, and it would be crippling to U.S. business, and not only those with a direct stake in highways, ports and railroads.

This is the reality of transportation and the U.S. economy today: The American Association of Port Authorities says every state now depends on at least 15 ports for its imports and exports. Those goods move through national networks.

“We depend on the infrastructure of locks and dams across the country,” said Wendell Shaumann, chairman of the U.S. Grains Council, whose members are looking to get corn, wheat and other agriculture products to markets abroad. “That has got to be a federal program.

“You look at the Panama Canal investment, the railroads they’re building in South America, the roads they’re building in China — my sense is the rest of the world is moving on,” he said.

Business should be urging lawmakers in Washington to do the same.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at ppage@joc.com. Follow Paul Page on Twitter, www.twitter.com/paulpage.
 

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