U.S. Rep Bill Shuster, R-Pa., House chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, met with Amtrak's brass in New York last Friday, and then hopped on an Amtrak train for Hartford. Fellow Rep. John Larson and state Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker met the train in New Haven for a little chat time on the ride to Hartford.
Given the circumstances, you might have put money on this particular train making it to Hartford. You would have lost. It was pouring rain and the car the congressmen were riding in actually leaked, which is never a hopeful sign.
Somewhere in the North Haven-Wallingford stretch, the trained stopped a couple of times and then the lights went out. Someone finally decided the engine wouldn't make it to points north, and the train had to be towed back to New Haven for another engine. The officials ended up driving to Hartford. At least they had plenty of time to talk.
This, in a nutshell, is what Shuster is up against. The transportation infrastructure is this country is aging and in need of repair. He understands that. But his party doesn't want to raise taxes or spend money. How to proceed?
Shuster, who took over the key chairmanship in January, is on a listening tour, often by rail. Larson invited him to address a public meeting Saturday morning at the (lovely) Riverfront Recapture boathouse at Riverside Park in Hartford.
Shuster is the son of Congressman Bud Shuster, who also headed the Transportation Committee. The younger Pennsylvanian, from the Pittsburgh area, seems like a bright and level-headed guy — no tea bag hanging from his lapel — who seems to get the (fairly dismal) picture.
He understands that a functional transportation system is vital to the nation's economy. "Everybody in America is in the transportation business," he said. He also knows that transportation is a core function of the federal government.
He also believes that federal investment in higher-speed rail should be in the Northeast Corridor, where 18 percent of the U.S. population lives on 3 percent of its land mass.
But how to do it? "We're going to have to figure it out," he said. And quickly.
As Alex Marshall writes in this month's Governing Magazine, we are blowing what is perhaps the best chance in 75 years to "rejuvenate our decaying roads, bridges, water systems and transit networks." There was a burst of activity with the federal stimulus program in 2009, but it has tailed off. Yet the time is still ripe because interest rates are at historic lows and construction companies can offer good rates.
Plus, putting people to work boosts the economy. Write this down: It's always better to spend public money on a road crew than on food stamps or unemployment payments.
Where to start? For lack of a better idea, how about with a plan? When the country was building the interstate highway system, that was the plan. It had a purpose and a focus, and we got it done. Since then, we've had no plan, so have wasted resources on such embarrassments as the "bridge to nowhere."
Shuster views part of his job as creating that plan or vision, that's why he's out listening. Let's tell him to build that vision around road and bridge repair and higher-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. That a train derailed in Fairfield because — preliminary reports suggest — of a broken rail, or that an Amtrak train breaks down on the way to Hartford, speak to the challenges of transportation as a system in this country. Trains all over the world are fast, clean and punctual. Why not here?
There is the matter of paying for them. The federal Highway Trust Fund has been essentially bankrupt since 2008, but Congress has not had the will to raise the federal gas tax (18.4 cents per gallon), even to adjust it for inflation, since 1993. Shuster understands; he's looking at other ideas, perhaps revenue from federal oil leases. Let's wish him well; pulling this particular sword from the stone is vital to the country's future.
Tom Condon can be reached at email@example.com.