There are few people today who would argue against the value of constructing America's Transcontinental Railroad. The ribbon of steel that bound us together as a nation like never before cost $50 million at the time it was built. In today's dollars, one estimate pegs the cost of that project at $900 million — still a pretty good deal. As a catalyst for almost every sector of our economy for the next century, it was the deal of deals.
Today, the transportation sector accounts for 11 percent of our gross domestic product, about $1.1 trillion annually, and supports one in eight jobs. Yet when it comes to investing in the completion and maintenance of our national network of concrete ribbons — our National Highway System and transit needs — we seem as stalled as a Model T in the mud.
As vice chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I believe all options must be on the table for funding this critically important national need. We must ensure a dedicated pool of federal revenue sufficient to meet the growing needs of our aging transportation system. It should include a formula of fairness to commerce and commuter alike — from our most rural corners to our cities. Resolving the funding issue will allow several pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.
Crafting a transportation bill sooner rather than later would yield three fairly immediate results: It would create jobs, save money and spur the economy. Upgrading and maintaining our domestic transportation system would help to defend America's competitive position internationally.
Congress has long recognized the importance of transportation for creating jobs and keeping our country competitive.
For example, about 45 years ago, Congress made the promise to 13 Appalachian Regional Commission member states to complete the Appalachian Development Highway System. The idea was to provide access leading to economic development for Appalachia, thereby connecting the region more fully, especially economically, to the rest of nation. The commission has estimated that completion of the Appalachian Development Highway System would yield benefits more than three times the cost of constructing the system.
I recently supported committee Chairman James Oberstar's (D-Minn.) efforts to preserve an equitable distribution of funds to the ADHS in this last highway bill extension, because — like the chairman — Members of Congress, from the poorest state up, recognize the link between economic development and transportation.
Another important component of the bill is funding University Transportation Centers. These centers serve a critical role in sharing information and research needs, as well as prospects, and can further define the importance of transportation in economic development.
I am proud to say the U.S. Department of Transportation's University Center research program at Marshall University's Appalachian Transportation Institute — dubbed the Rahall Transportation Institute — is at the forefront of linking transportation infrastructure to economic development across the Appalachian states.
The institute did an elegant little commodity-flows study that brought a railroad, Norfolk Southern, knocking at southern West Virginia's door to open new job opportunities in my Congressional district and others. The endeavor is part of a multimillion-dollar public-private effort to enlarge tunnels along its rail lines through Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio. That work is scheduled to be completed later this year, clearing the way to transport double-stack intermodal containers from Virginia's ports to the Central Ohio Valley and on to Chicago and markets to the west.
The rail operator saves energy, shippers save costs and job-producing opportunities seize advantages from the new shipments, such as the proposed intermodal center at Prichard, W.Va.
The cargo-transfer terminal in Prichard will give shippers in the tri-state region of West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio multi-modal access to highway and rail. It will not only increase shipping and freight job opportunities, but it will give our industries access to modern, efficient freight container service, as well as access to international markets.
Examples like these can be found in Congressional district after district across our country — transportation building jobs. To keep up the good work, Congress should consider some broad foundations on which to build as we write a robust surface transportation authorization bill.
It is essential that we do a multiyear transportation bill large enough to meet our critical needs and to stimulate jobs. Everyone loses when we have a series of short-term transportation and infrastructure patches that do not address our national long-term needs.
Certainly, one of the greatest American assets is our National Highway System, and I will vigorously reject efforts to devolve programs back to the states.
The development of a national multi-modal transportation policy will keep America moving. It is my hope that we can further integrate intermodalism with our planning and programs, and that certainly includes the rail industry.
Additionally, we should be prepared to mobilize the manpower needed to make this improved and long-sustained transportation system a reality. What better resource to tap than our veterans for such an undertaking? I am working with my colleagues to recognize the value of veterans' service experience with the billions of dollars in contract authority this bill will provide.
By coming together and pooling our minds, our muscle — and yes, our money — we, resourceful and inspired Americans, can tackle age-old challenges and craft creative solutions that will ensure our nation a sound defense and competitive edge for years to come.
In all things dealing with public policy, as we crunch numbers and streamline formulas, we cannot for an instant lose sight of the human element as central to our purpose — right now that main goal is and must remain to create jobs.
Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) is vice chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.