This past election cycle has had to share the international stage with America’s crumbling economy. These two mega-events provided virtually endless material for journalists; but for readers, they provided a two-pronged path to boredom. I, like most students, consider myself an intellectual — someone who can engage, analyze and critique the world and its most pertinent issues. And for many months I’ve tried to maintain a sincere interest in both politics and finance. But now, I just want something new.
The election is over, and God only knows where the stock market will be next week, so let’s consider a fresh, uncharted topic — a virgin in intellectual discourse and one dynamic enough to stimulate proactive discussion well into the future. What I’m referring to is America’s ailing transportation infrastructure.
Indeed, a federally sponsored transportation restructuring plan, what some have dubbed a “National Mobility Project,” could act as an antidote to the triple poison of energy dependence, political disunity and financial turmoil. And it could even make politics and finance more interesting.
Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks discussed this initiative by relating it to core concerns over energy, politics and finance. “A mobility project would dovetail with the energy initiatives both presidential candidates have offered,” Brooks said. “It would benefit from broad political support from liberals and business groups alike, and it would rebalance this economy.”
Inspired by Brooks’s idea, I did some digging. America’s transportation infrastructure pales in comparison to that of other developed nations. High-speed, long-distance railways in the European Union and China are far superior to any U.S. rail system. Only the largest U.S. cities have subways, and bus routes aren’t generally tailored to suburban commuting patterns. According to the annual Urban Mobility Report, Americans spend billions of hours a year sitting in traffic. On the road to a healthy economy, these are all trends that must change.
A modern, accessible and reliable mass transportation infrastructure would shift commuters’ reliance from ozone-depleting cars to eco-friendly trains. This isn’t a new concept. The real innovative potential here is the ability to create transportation infrastructure designed to utilize alternative energy, cut commuting time and make our lives more efficient. With widespread support, a unified, supportive government can work to eliminate many of the bureaucratic obstacles that will inevitably interfere with and delay this project.
Now, however, is not necessarily the time for the federal government to expand costly spending programs. We understand that the incoming Congress needs to balance the federal budget, and adding a multi-billion dollar project isn’t the best way to do so. If we pour money into a new project, it will need to generate tangible returns — and fast.
But, Congress has yet to allocate the full figure of its massive economic recovery package, and a creative project like national mobility would be an opportune and tangible way to jumpstart the economy.
I could be wrong, but wasn’t this the bailout’s purpose — to jumpstart our economy before it plunged into further ruin? Propping up the lending industry might restore credit, but it won’t necessarily create jobs.
Yes, a new transportation infrastructure will be expensive, but it will also create thousands of new jobs across many different sectors: architects and engineers to design; banks and venture capitalists to fund; and laborers and contractors to build. Employment productivity, according to economists, is a much more appropriate measure of the economy’s health than the securities market. If politicians aim to bring America into a new age of economic prosperity, they should support and fund a project with goals to boost employment and productivity.
America emerged as a global superpower once we detonated the atom bomb. In the 1940s, a global war necessitated unprecedented ingenuity and innovation, and for many years America sat on the throne of global power as a result. Sixty years later, if we take an introspective look at our place in the world, and we ask ourselves, who are we as Americans? Why are we so great? Do we lead, or do we follow? The answers aren’t so clear.
In his acceptance speech Tuesday night, President-elect Barack Obama declared, “A world was connected by (America’s) science and imagination.” To re-connect this world and re-establish America’s respect, we need to re-adopt our foundational values of innovation, ingenuity, imagination and, yes, politics and finance as well.
To begin, let’s show the world that we can move people farther, faster and more efficiently than anyone else. I’ll take the first nuclear-powered train conductor position. How about you?
Ari Parritz can be reached at email@example.com.