How can you convince Americans that transportation is important enough to invest in?
That’s the question that brought together five former U.S. transportation secretaries this week at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
James Burnley, secretary under President Reagan, took the position that “75 percent” of the public “gives the thumbs down to paying more for transportation” because we’re giving them the wrong argument about why it matters. He took a jab at President Obama’s stimulus program:
"We have to stop treating transportation infrastructure as a short-term jobs program. We need to convince the American people that we need to invest in transportation infrastructure because we need to invest in transportation infrastructure," Burnley said. "If we sell that idea -- not as a jobs program, but because it affects the ability of our economy to grow over time, our international competitiveness and all the other things that we believe it affects -- then we’ve got a fighting shot at convincing the American people that the resources that we believe ought to be devoted to transportation should be devoted to it."
Other transportation secretaries gathered at the 2011 David R. Goode National Transportation Policy Summit didn't disagree with Burnley so much as redefine the question, saying it's the federal government that has a credibility problem.
Sam Skinner, who served under President George H.W. Bush, argued that everything from bridges to nowhere to mishandling of Medicare and pensions have eroded public confidence that the government can handle anything at all.
“You cannot have high-profile projects with runaway costs (such as Boston’s Big Dig) without undercutting American confidence in the ability of government to do it,” Skinner said.