It’s About Jobs

Last month’s special election in Massachusetts may have rocked the political landscape, but for anyone with a stake in transportation, the best and most immediate impact may be a clearer path toward investment in the country’s infrastructure needs.

At first glance, transportation and infrastructure may not have seemed to be issues in the election of Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate from the overwhelmingly Democratic state.

What was on the agenda was job creation, and the administration’s seeming inattention to pressing economic issues while spending its political capital on issues of more remote concern to a country stumbling out of a deep recession. While broad economic indicators suggest a recovery is in the works, the improvement is in part a mathematical construction, with many positive numbers now built on comparisons to some of the poorest months of economic performance in decades.

Just as significant is that the country is seeing a jobless recovery; just as ship operators, air cargo operators and trucking companies are keeping a tight lid on adding capacity, employers in a range of industries appear to be waiting for greater certainty before restoring jobs.

It’s a void transportation and infrastructure leaders have been anxious to fill since last year’s enactment of an economic stimulus package many believe was largely devoid of real stimulus. If the administration truly wants to respond to that political wakeup call in Massachusetts by focusing more closely on jobs, infrastructure interests should be pointing the way to a plan that is, after all, essentially shovel-ready.

While Congress and the White House have focused on the seemingly intractable issues surrounding health care reform, the plan that would pump $500 billion into transportation and infrastructure over the next six years has been pushed aside. It’s time to get that effort back on track.

It’s not exactly that the administration isn’t concerned about transportation. But there has to be a vision beyond high-speed rail. Transport interests, from ports to highways, need to seize the moment and press the administration and Congress to stop pushing off the need for investment until later.

There’s certainly enough frustration in the shipping community.

Transportation industry officials speaking at the winter meeting in Atlanta last month of the SMC3 trucking technology firm said the Obama administration had missed a chance to address infrastructure while creating jobs in the $787 billion stimulus package. They pointed to estimates that just 4 percent of the money was sent to highways, ports and other such infrastructure.

“It was miserable in terms of transportation,” said Jean Godwin, executive vice president and general counsel at the American Association of Port Authorities.

“This White House does not support transportation spending,” said Robert Voltmann, president and CEO of the Transportation Intermediaries Association. “They do not believe that spending on roads or ports translates into jobs.”

Godwin said the administration and Congress would be able to tackle the politically tough questions about transportation spending, such as the gas tax, after this year’s midterm elections. But last month’s special election suggests putting off such questions does not come without a political price.

Paul Page is editorial director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at

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