St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Ready for an Overhaul

St_Louis

"A pastor and a developer might make unusual bedfellows," write Jack Schuler and Richard Baron in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "but like many other Americans, we are concerned about how Congress intends to spend the many billions of dollars we send to Washington to pay for transportation projects..."

Ready for an overhaul

A pastor and a developer might make unusual bedfellows, but like many other
Americans, we are concerned about how Congress intends to spend the many
billions of dollars we send to Washington to pay for transportation projects.

The current transportation funding bill expires at the end of the month, and it
is due for a major overhaul. Despite the billions we've spent, there are too
many crumbling roads and bridges; congested streets that are unsafe for
motorists, pedestrians and cyclists; and public transportation systems in
financial crisis, even with ridership at an historic high.

Missouri commuters know how an outdated federal transportation program makes
everyday life more difficult. Federal dollars pay for 80 percent of highway
construction and about half of mass-transit projects. Still, the American
Society of Civil Engineers found that a third of our bridges are structurally
deficient and 34 percent of our roads are in substandard condition. In March,
Metro in St. Louis laid off workers, cut bus service by 44 percent and cut
MetroLink service by 32 percent to offset a deficit.

It's not just Missouri; the same is true for every state. The federal program,
created in the 1950s to build the interstate highway system, has lost focus and
run out of steam.

That's the unfortunate news. The good news is that we have a once-in-a-century
opportunity to set a new course. This, after all, is a much different time than
1956, when gasoline was 20 cents a gallon, babies were booming and President
Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the Interstate Highway Act, an ambitious network
of coast-to-coast superhighways that reshaped our country.

Missouri was the first state to award a contract using these new interstate
highway construction funds, signing a deal for work on U.S. Route 66 — now
Interstate 44 — in Laclede County. Today, with the interstate highway system
complete, the era of cheap energy behind us and baby boomers headed toward
retirement, Missouri and the nation are in a very different world.

U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, has introduced two critical pieces of
federal legislation that help put us on the right path and save us money over
the long term.

H.R. 2724, the "National Transportation Objectives Act of 2009," is a landmark
bill that sets clear goals and targets for making our transportation system
safer, cleaner, more socially just and less congested with a coherent set of
national goals and performance targets. Meeting these goals will help Americans
spend less time and money when they choose to drive, increase accessibility to
all forms of transportation, reduce our dependence on oil and create good jobs
right here in Missouri.

A companion piece of legislation, H.R. 2746 allows public transportation
agencies to use part of the federal funding they receive to pay for operating
expenses such as fuel, staff, and safety upkeep, currently not allowed under
federal law. Transit operators should be able to use the funding they already
receive to save jobs and maintain their systems. There is abundant evidence
showing that proper investment in upkeep and maintenance saves money over time
and increases safety.

The new transportation bill in Congress presents a tremendous opportunity to
leverage the billions on federal transportation investments to put the people
back to work who need it the most. Missouri created a national work force
development model (known as the "Missouri Model") that is being used today to
rebuild Interstate 64. The Missouri Model is being touted nationally as one of
the best examples workforce diversity in the country. Women and minorities are
performing 27 percent of the work hours.

These issues are important on many levels. One of us is a pastor who works with
communities whose neighborhoods have been cut off by highway projects and that
now face the prospect of being cut off from jobs by the cuts to public
transportation. The other is a developer of mixed-income housing who knows
first-hand how important light rail and reliable transit service are to
building great neighborhoods affordable to low-income families and attractive
to middle-income residents.

We need to support Carnahan and others in Congress leading the charge for a new
transportation program that is more accountable, considers views of ordinary
Americans and would help create a safer, healthier, more equitable and
prosperous Missouri.

The Rev. Jack Schuler is president of the Transportation Equity Network and
pastor at St. Ferdinand Parish in Florissant. Richard Baron is chairman and CEO
of McCormack Baron Salazar in St. Louis and a member of LOCUS, an organization
of Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors.

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