On June 29, 2018, unbeknownst to many, a major national anniversary came and went. Its importance is both good and bad. What was it? It was the 62nd anniversary of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
The great World War II Army general had left the European military theater in 1945 greatly impressed by the network of high-speed roads that existed in Germany. Known then as the Reichsautobahnen, it made the movement of people and goods extremely efficient. Why shouldn’t such a system exist in America?
Upon becoming president, ensuring that such a road network was built in the United States became a central priority for Eisenhower. A Federal-Aid Highway Act had been passed in 1944, authorizing the construction of a 40,000-mile interstate highway system across the nation. However, one crucial component was left out of this act: No money was allocated to make the interstate system a reality.
Under Eisenhower, not only was new legislation passed in 1956 to accomplish this goal — most importantly, the federal government put forward the effort to make it happen. Uncle Sam would pay 90 percent of the price tag, allocating around $26 billion, and the states would cover the remaining 10 percent. This 90/10 split would encourage states across the country to get in on the expansive transportation building plan. The rest, as they say, is history.
Consisting of over 3 million square miles from coast to coast, the nation’s interstate system would and does play a vital factor in the economic growth of the nation.
Progress, a continual state of betterment or advancement, generally takes vision, which is the ability to think about or plan for the future with wisdom and foresight. Thankfully, after decades of not doing so, Alabama is taking steps to make progress and formulate a vision when it comes to something of pivotal importance to the state: public transportation.
For quite some time, Alabama has been one of only five states that provided no money for public transportation. None. In a state with a sizable population of poor citizens, both rural and urban, this has been quite consequential.
Whether trying to get to work, a medical or dental appointment, or just shopping for basic necessities, many Alabamians have had to contend with formidable obstacles when it comes to mobility.
A 2014 report titled “Connecting Our Citizens for Prosperity: Alabama’s Successes and Needed Improvements in Transportation Infrastructure,” observed: “Transportation infrastructure is widely recognized as an essential determinant of a community’s economic development. … Transportation infrastructure is both the skeleton upon which an economy is built and the bloodstream through which resources flow to serve all parts of the region. … A system designed for single-passenger automobiles isolates many elderly and disabled citizens, as well as other people unable to afford the ever-increasing costs of automobile ownership and maintenance.”
By establishing the Alabama Public Transportation Trust Fund this year, state leaders have taken an important first step in laying the foundation to address a crucial element that affects Alabama’s economic growth along with the lives of many of its citizens.
For years, we’ve been leaving millions of dollars on the table by not putting any money into public transportation to take advantage of monies the federal government would give on top of what we invest. For every $5 million Alabama is willing to invest, the federal government is willing to give our state $15 million.
For those who say such expenditures of state tax dollars is a waste or imprudent use of fiscal resources, a plethora of studies and research has determined otherwise. For example, according to the American Public Transportation Association, every $1 invested in public transportation generates approximately $4 in economic returns. Additionally, 87 percent of public transportation trips directly benefit the economy by getting people to work and connecting them to local businesses.
Some might see investment in public transportation as a type of handout or even a type of welfare, but it’s quite the opposite. Such investment can reap tangible and beneficial gains for entire communities.
As Rep. Jack Williams of Jefferson County noted, “Public transportation that is spent wisely and spent well is economic development money; it’s job creation.” By failing to have an adequate public transportation system, Alabama and the counties and municipalities within it are literally missing out on millions in lost economic development, wages and revenue dollars.
The term “public transportation” is inclusive of an array of different modes of transportation. It’s not just a city bus system. Trolleybuses, rapid transit, ferries, passenger trains, trams and light rail all are under the umbrella of public transportation.
Progress, which requires leaders to have vision, also takes not being stuck in the past. Not being enamored of what was, or content with what is, but understanding what it will take to be successful in the yet-to-be. Alabama and many of its communities have hampered its growth by perpetually limiting the mobility of its citizens.
The step Alabama leaders took this year doesn’t allocate any monies as of yet, but it at least establishes a framework for future appropriations. Hopefully this is the beginning of an awakening in which the voices of naysayers and critics of public transportation are drowned out by those who understand public transportation — a diverse, far-reaching and efficient public transportation system — is not a sign of waste, but of progress. Progress that will benefit us all, not just a few.