Kirk Landers: Memo to: President Obama

Memo to:  President Obama

By Kirk Landers

With all due respect, Mr. President, your administration’s call for an 18-month delay in the creation of a new federal surface transportation program may seem politically expedient, but it is destructive, and in the end, it will be damaging to your presidency, your political party, and most especially, to the American people.

            Let’s begin with the central fact, agreed upon by think tanks of every political persuasion: to prepare our roads and bridges for the next cycle of economic growth — and the many cycles that follow — we need to virtually double our current rate of investment. We have not kept pace with increased usage of our roads and bridges for decades, and that is now manifesting itself in structural degradation and gridlock.

            Continuing for another 18 months a program that was inadequate at birth and has been further devalued by inflationary prices for building materials in recent years is a recipe for failure. Please understand that the value of our roads and bridges erodes with each month of adequate investment in maintenance, repair and capacity. This is its own kind of tax, and if we don’t pay it, sooner or later our highway system will resemble that of a third world nation.

            You and your party’s leadership don’t want to raise the fuel tax because it might hurt the economic recovery and, let’s face it, you don’t want to give Republicans ammunition to use against Democrats in the coming mid-term elections.

            That’s the kind of short-term thinking that got you elected, Mr. President. Our recent history of gasoline prices provides hard documentation that we could tack on another 25 cents per gallon to gasoline without affecting the overall economy a bit. Furthermore, the jobs generated by the investment we need to make in roads and bridges would do more to stimulate the economy in the months to come than to dampen it.

            Did I mention that your predecessor, President George W. Bush, also refused to allow an increase in the fuel tax? His reason: he didn’t want to damage the strong economy.

            Let’s see where this gets us. We can’t afford to raise the fuel tax when times are good. We can’t afford to raise the fuel tax when times are bad. Apparently, we can’t afford to have 21st Century roads and bridges, because we aren’t going to get there without a higher fuel tax.

            And that’s really my message to you and the Democratic leadership of the Congress. There is no good time to raise any tax in today’s America. It’s going to set off howls of anguish from all sorts of people and you may even lose some Congressional seats over it. That’s the price of power and leadership in America. The citizenry gave you the Presidency and a two-house majority with the expectation that you would solve problems, not hide from them.

            And by the way, let’s say we do delay the legislation until after the mid-term elections. What then? By the time the new congress is seated, you personally will begin your next presidential campaign, and dozens of incumbent senators will be preparing their campaigns as well. Is that a good time to give birth to a strong federal transportation program backed by new funds?

            In contrast, a strong program passed in 2009 will be generating hundreds of thousands of jobs by the time campaigns start for the next presidential election. If you and the Democratic leadership can’t defend a tax increase with that kind of ammunition, you probably weren’t going to stay in power very long anyway.

            Mr. President, there’s still time for you to be a leader on this issue, instead of a Prom King. The people of the heavy construction industry are continuing the good fight for America’s transportation future. How about helping us get done what needs to be done?