Recent progress in the legislative effort to enable much-needed improvement of America’s infrastructure is a refreshing contrast to the often unproductive polarizing rancor of 2021.
Success on an infrastructure package would boost bipartisanship as well as make a significant, tangible positive difference for generations to come — for all Americans! It cannot be overstated just how critical transportation infrastructure is to our economy, to job growth, and to every American’s quality of life.
Throughout my tenure as U.S. Secretary of Transportation (2017-2021), federal, state, local and private sector leaders advocated for long-term, comprehensive infrastructure strategy and funding. Absent a comprehensive, multi-year legislative resolution, we worked within annual appropriations to invest over $330 billion to modernize and shore up the nation’s infrastructure.
At the U.S. Department of Transportation, we partnered with policymakers from both parties to secure $20 billion in additional investment over four years and distributed more than 7,700 discretionary grants to state and local entities, totaling $39 billion.
The Department sped up infrastructure projects by accelerating the permitting process that has too often become a needlessly protracted, bureaucratic quagmire impeding needed improvements.
We strengthened America’s economic competitiveness through the first-ever National Freight Strategic Plan. Investments were directed to underserved, low-income rural and urban communities – including a commitment of $2.1 billion to Opportunity Zones.
Our Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) Initiative responded to the fact that 69% of the nation’s road lane miles are in rural areas and the fatality rate on rural roads is twice that on urban roads. And 80% of rural bridges are in poor condition.
By the way, rural infrastructure is not just for the benefit of rural residents. 44% of passenger vehicle traffic in rural areas is urban residents travelling. Only 19% of Americans live in rural areas, yet 46% of the nation’s highway fatalities occur there.
Crafting a bipartisan package that addresses these and other infrastructure needs — for years to come — requires real compromise, seemingly a lost art in recent years.
Yet to their credit, Senate negotiators recently came together in a determined spirit of compromise and comity and produced a starting draft that overcame some of the big hurdles that have stymied previous attempts.
Notably, the draft excluded economy-destructive tax hikes and kept the mission scope more focused on core infrastructure. It is a solid starting point for a thorough, deliberative congressional debate that should encompass the local needs and knowledge of the 50 states and America’s territories.
There is reason for real hope that this culminates in a comprehensive, forward-looking infrastructure plan for the entire country.
It is obvious to Americans all around the nation that airports, roads, rail, bridges, water systems, power grids, and broadband systems are urgently in need of attention, funding and improvements.
Few actions would improve the congressional approval rating more than providing long-term investments to ensure that America has a safer, more reliable, and more efficient transportation system. And including enhancements and expansion of vital infrastructure such as rural broadband would be enthusiastically applauded in thousands of communities coast-to-coast.
If this constructive momentum for a truly bipartisan infrastructure package comes to fruition I won’t be present for the bill-signing, but I’ll be happily watching on television. And with great appreciation and respect for the dedication and patriotism of everyone who made it possible.
So to the negotiators, I say: good luck and Godspeed!
Elaine Chao served as U.S. Secretary of Transportation during the administration of President Donald Trump. She also served as labor secretary during the administration of former President George W. Bush.