Presidents as different as Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all grasped the moment when surface transportation investment legislation was pending before them.
“Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods,” Eisenhower said in a Feb. 22, 1955, message to Congress, as he continued his push for the Interstate Highway System.
Eisenhower signed the historic law creating the Interstates and Highway Trust Fund on June 29, 1956.
Over 26 years later, Ronald Reagan made the case for a five-cent federal gas tax increase in a national radio address, saying: “We simply cannot allow this magnificent system to deteriorate beyond repair.” Reagan also noted, “we will be preserving for future generations of Americans a highway system that has long been the envy of the world.”
On Jan. 7, 1983, Reagan signed a law boosting U.S. highway and public transportation investment with its accompanying five-cent gas tax increase—the first one in 23 years.
During a June 9, 1998, White House signing ceremony, Bill Clinton said: “The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) represents a significant achievement in our efforts to meet our transportation needs in the next century. I commend the Congress for its diligent, bipartisan efforts to resolve differences and to pass this important legislation.”
The six-year TEA-21 produced a monumental 19%, year-one increase in highway investment.
These three examples—under administrations of both parties and spanning 42 years—illustrate how rare moments for transformative federal infrastructure investment policy legislation have come together in the nation’s capital.
We are on the cusp of another such moment with the sweeping Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which the U.S Senate approved Aug. 10 in an overwhelming 69-30 vote. Since that pivotal moment, the stakes have become even higher. Last month Hurricane Ida slashed its way through New Orleans and up the Atlantic Seaboard, leaving billions of dollars in damaged infrastructure in its wake. Bridges and highways collapsed. Transit systems were damaged. Many roads are now impassable.
Thankfully, relief efforts are underway. But structural infrastructure deficiencies remain in affected areas and throughout the nation. That’s exactly why the IIJA would dedicate nearly half of its $1 trillion to highway, bridge and public transportation improvements.
The highway and public transit investment increases in year one: 24% and 31%, respectively.
The IIJA also contains common sense reforms to speed up project delivery by enacting into law the previous administration’s “One Federal Decision” Executive Order, which consolidates all permitting decisions for major infrastructure projects into one single environmental document. It seeks to finalize the environmental review process within an average time of two years and complete all authorization decisions for a major project within 90 days.
Best Opportunity in 25 Years
The House is currently scheduled to vote on the measure before Sept. 27, and the transportation construction industry is fully engaged in generating support for the IIJA. Transportation construction contractors are meeting virtually with lawmakers in their districts. Industry groups hope to sign a letter to each House member urging passage. After the House reconvenes Sept. 20, transportation stakeholders will mobilize on Sept. 21 to generate grassroots momentum for passing the IIJA and sending it to President Biden for signature.
The IIJA clearly offers the best opportunity in nearly 25 years to strengthen economic competitiveness and improve transportation system performance for all users. Now that a historic investment in America’s transportation infrastructure is within reach, we all need to engage with members of Congress to seize the moment—just as Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton did.
Dave Bauer is president and chief executive officer of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA).