Rockefeller Delivers Major Address on the Importance of Upgrading Our Transportation System

May 2, 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today spoke at the International Transportation and Economic Development Conference (I-TED) in Charleston, West Virginia. At the conference, he discussed the importance of transportation to West Virginia and the country and the need to make tough choices to upgrade our transportation infrastructure.

The text of Chairman Rockefeller’s remarks as prepared for delivery follow:

Chairman Rockefeller

International Transportation and Economic Development Conference Remarks

May 2, 2011

Thank you, Congressman Rahall, and thanks to the Rahall Transportation Institute for convening this conference in West Virginia.

We certainly have a lot of transportation legislation on our agenda in Congress this year—what we used to call “must do” legislation, like FAA reauthorization and the highway bill, as Congressman Rahall described.

But the Congressman also touched on what I think is our biggest barrier to getting those or any bills done in a way that actually helps the country—and that’s the budget and deficit battle.

The reality is that we can’t talk about roads, bridges, rail or any of it without acknowledging the new and dire fiscal cuts that are on the table. 

Money is the 800-pound gorilla in every room in Washington right now as we struggle to rein in the deficit—something we have to do—after almost a decade of giving away trillions in tax cuts to the very wealthy and corporate tax loopholes, while fighting two wars.

Extending the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans—including the estate tax relief that benefits only one quarter of one percent of all Americans who die—will cost us $700 billion over the next decade. That would give every wealthy tax payer over a million dollars each over that ten year time period.

I know some will think that’s a political thing to say—the papers tend to draw battle lines that way—but I really don’t mean it to be political, and I don’t think it is. It’s just important to acknowledge where most of the money went so we can be smart about how to get back on track.

Everybody pays a lot of attention to the cuts that would slash Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—I do, too, and those are enormously important to stop. But we’re also facing potentially drastic cuts to all the programs that build our future, like education and economic development and transportation.

Every part of our transportation network is in jeopardy today because of a crusade in Washington to rein in the deficit exclusively with spending cuts—something that’s never worked and is fundamentally short-sighted.

House Republicans passed a budget—the so-called Ryan Budget—that next year alone cuts $14 billion from transportation. In West Virginia that translates to a loss of $143 million in transportation funds and 5,000 lost jobs.

And at a time when our national transportation system is in dire straits, it just doesn’t make sense.

Across the nation, we are driving on more than 90,000 miles of crumbling highways and more than 70,000 structurally deficient bridges.

West Virginia ranks 8th from the bottom in the number of bridges that are rated “poor,” according to Transportation for America. Most bridges are designed to last 50 years—the average in our state is 44.

Traffic and congestion is getting worse and our roads are neglected. Our country’s infrastructure gets a D-minus from a national rating group – even as mileage traveled by cars increased 94 percent in the last 25 years.

Our overloaded Air Traffic Control system is a relic of the 1950’s—an average teenager with a smart phone has newer technology at his fingertips than we have at our airports. 

Right now the airport in Ulan Bator, Mongolia has more sophisticated technology than Los Angeles or Houston. But the Ryan Plan cuts the FAA budget by 25%—delaying NextGen, cutting safety programs, slashing airport infrastructure funds.

Our passenger rail network is too slow, too limited, and not useful for many Americans—who’d rather take their chances on a crowded highway than risk unreliable train service.

And our maritime infrastructure—the essential means we have for growing our exports and righting our trade imbalance—is unable to meet the growing needs of global trade.

To put it bluntly, our transportation system is inadequate—in some cases, an embarrassment to what we aspire to as a national and a global leader—and will hold us back economically.

So as much as I’d like to be talking with West Virginians about finishing Corridor H—potentially driving economic development for two-thirds of our state—instead I spend my time fending off ill-conceived cuts to programs and investments.

As I see it, we have one real option: to rebuild our economy and our infrastructure with a plan that combines smart, targeted spending cuts with smart, targeted revenue increases.

I’ve voted for $38.5 billion in cuts in the last several months, and I worked hard for a health care bill that saves more than $1 trillion over the next two decades—so I’m fully prepared to engage in spending cuts. But we can’t do it without additional revenues, too, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

Here is my plan for tackling transportation funding:

First, I have proposed new financing options such as an infrastructure bank. Users of the transportation system are likely going to have to pay more but many stakeholders are willing to do that provided the burden is spread fairly.

Second, general revenue must be increased, including for use in transportation projects, and we can do that by asking the wealthiest Americans to pay more and by ending foolish oil and gas subsidies—which the big oil companies just reminded us this week are a waste of money, since they are swimming in profits while prices at the pump pummel the nation. 

Third, we must step up our efforts to root out waste, fraud and abuse in government spending—starting with the estimated $50 billion in waste at the Pentagon, but also looking under the hood at our transportation programs. You can’t tell me there isn’t some savings to be achieved there too, and I know Secretary LaHood has been pressing that hard. 

Finally, we need to make Amtrak better and build a more efficient rail network—one that facilitates the flow of American goods for export and domestic consumption.

And none of this works if we don’t have cooperation among local, state and federal leaders. That starts with all of you in the audience—you must insist on collective efforts that benefit all of us. Our leaders must show leadership.

Let me close by bragging a little about West Virginia.

Our state has some of the best small airports in America. You flew into one of its finest—Charleston’s Yeager Airport is modern, efficient, and can connect globally with one stop. Huntington is now one of the fastest growing airports in America and with state and federal support its runways will soon be able to handle larger jets.

Morgantown airport, too, is thriving in the toughest economic conditions. But it’s doing so with the help of the Essential Air Service Program, as are Clarksburg and Beckley. 

The EAS program has been the lifeblood of small rural airports for decades—and Secretary LaHood shares my passion on it. He knows well that I have no intention of supporting any FAA reauthorization bill that cuts off these communities—so we’re working together on that.

And we’ll be working together on what I think is really the bottom line here: that those of us who care about transportation must be willing to fight for and fix this broken system, and must make the tough choices that serve our country over the long term—not just for the next election or a 30-second sound bite.