Letter to the Editor

We have squandered our rich inheritance

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dear Editor:

Americans seem to hold a special disdain for those who have been given much through inheritance but have managed to lose it through foolishness and neglect. Yet, as a generation, we have done exactly that.

Consider that we--the baby boomers--have allowed our inheritance, the nation's economic infrastructure, to crumble beneath our feet from selfishness and neglect. Somewhere along the path of being the "me" generation we forgot about "us."

Great nations build and invest for succeeding generations . . . like our parents and grandparents did. We have not.

Why should we care?

Access to what is referred to as "economic infrastructure," that being high quality transportation and utilities is the underlying difference between first world and third world countries. Reliable electricity, clean water and communications along with highway systems, railroads and airports make our modern economy possible.

You need only to talk to a resident from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to realize how dependent we really are on first world infrastructure. And if you think it is only a hurricane that can transform our lives instantly, talk to the residents of the seven northeastern states region that lost electric power or the residents of the Midwest about the effects of flooding on their way of life.

The interdependence of our economic infrastructure is also important to understand. Each relies on the other to function. Remove one and the others falter.

The one thing this entire infrastructure has in common is the enormous investment it represents by Americans at a time in United States history when we were far poorer as a society and our economy was one of many equals. Over the past half century, our nation has become far more mobile and more prosperous than ever imagined from investments made by previous generations.

This inheritance came at a sacrifice but those generations understood the connection between infrastructure and our economy. This is a lesson we've not learned. In fact, we take for granted the very things that have made our way of life possible. This situation places at peril not only our own, but future generations of Americans' standard of living and our nation's global competitiveness.

My interest is with transportation, but this circumstance applies to almost every component of our economic infrastructure. The benefits of a superior transportation system have provided the American economy productivity growth envied by the world for the past half century.

Our transportation system has allowed products--before, during and after manufacture--to be shipped at extremely low costs to the advantage of consumers and producers. We have all profited from higher wages and cheaper food. We travel more frequently and further than any generation in history creating a whole new industry from hotel chains to expansive airlines. And, we are now losing our edge.

While China, India and Russia are spending record amounts to increase their economic advantage, the United States is retreating from our needs. Our highways are deteriorating with many fixes today being no more than Band-Aids.

We've exceeded the capacity of 83 percent of our National Highway System resulting in ever growing congestion and tremendous waste of our collective time and waning fuel supplies, as well as increasing air pollution due to idling vehicles.

Our water ports are at the leading edge of what's been called a tsunami of freight with none of them prepared for what's coming. Airports and air routes are overburdened with too many planes and not enough runways to handle demand, which has produced an actual decline in the average speed commercial aircraft fly. After years of downsizing, freight railroads are now near their capacity. Transit systems can't replace outdated equipment.

Frankly, we have squandered our inheritance. We have enjoyed the benefits without a willingness to ensure our own children and grandchildren have the same advantages that we've had. We've lived for the day. We've bought into the idea that governments that provide much of our critical infrastructure are wasteful, inept and not deserving of our hard earned wages.

We've allowed demagogues to convince us that we have very little, if any, personal responsibility for a public service that we can not see benefit us individually. And, if it does benefit us, we prefer to have someone else pay for it.

How is this possible? We truly are the wealthiest society our planet has ever seen. We have more reason to invest in our critical economic infrastructure than at any time in history. Yet we remain unwilling to do so.

Situations like this require leadership. If Americans are unenthusiastic about investing in their future, our own past tells us courageous leaders must act in our best interest.

Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower all "got it." Today they are recognized for their vital contributions to the nation through critical transportation system improvements.

We have a chance to turn this around in 2009 as Congress works to authorize the next national highway and transit bill and the next president establishes his vision for our economic infrastructure. Without bold action, our children will surely ask, "How could we have bungled this so badly?"


Pete Rahn

President of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and director of the Missouri Department of Transportation