WASHINGTON—Eleven former Secretaries of Transportation joined current DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx in sending an open letter to Congress, urging legislators to reach consensus on a long-term transportation funding measure.
The Transportation Department issued the letter just as the Senate was preparing to take up a stopgap transportation bill similar to the one the House of Representatives passed July 15. The House bill would transfer $9.9 billion from the general fund and $1 billion from a separate trust fund into the Highway Trust Fund to prevent the Highway Trust Fund from becoming totally depleted in August.
“Suffice it to say, we've been around the block,” the DOT secretaries said in the letter dated July 21. “We probably helped pave it. So it is with some knowledge and experience that we can write: Never in our nation's history has America's transportation system been on a more unsustainable course.”
Congress has passed 27 short-term transportation funding measures in the past five years, the secretaries said. The last six-year funding bill, they said, was more than a decade ago.
“This is no way to run a railroad, fill a pothole or repair a bridge,” they said. “In fact, the unpredictability about when, or if, funding will come has caused states to delay or cancel projects altogether.
“Simply put, the United States of America is in a united state of disrepair,” the secretaries said. The problem will be far worse in the future, they said: By 2050, the U.S. population will have increased by 100 million, necessitating the movement of an extra 14 billion tons of freight annually—nearly double the current rate.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the U.S. must invest $1.8 trillion in its transportation infrastructure by 2020 just for adequate maintenance, the secretaries said.
“Adequately funding our transportation system won't be an easy task for our nation's lawmakers,” they said. “But that doesn't mean it's impossible. Consensus has been brokered before.”
Foxx expanded on the points in the letter in a speech at the National Press Club July 21. Short-term measures such as the one now before the Senate, he said, simply will not do.
“If this short-term patch passes, it won't be a time to celebrate,” Foxx said.
“It's hard to imagine that Congress will not push the snooze button on this issue when it's crunch time again,” he said. “Come May, if we're not careful, we will be right here again, with the time clock set to expire, looking for an easy solution to patch us for a few months, leaving the real conversation for another time.”
Foxx praised the Obama administration's Grow America Act, which he said would increase contributions to the Highway Trust Fund and streamline the federal permitting process to allow faster action on transportation projects.
“The idea that Congress cannot make a multi-year, future-oriented transportation bill happen is one of the biggest self-fulfilling prophecies in our politics right now,” Foxx said. Getting the message to the American people that long-term solutions are possible is crucial, he said.
“We need a moment of clarity and political courage, and that will not happen without the American people knowing the facts and raising their voices,” he said.
The 11 previous Secretaries of Transportation who signed the July 21 letter were Ray LaHood, Mary Peters, Norman Mineta, Rodney Slater, Federico Pena, Samuel Skinner, Andrew Card, James Burnley, Elizabeth Dole, William Coleman and Alan Boyd. They served in the administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.