I am tired of comparing our transportation system to other nations’ and being embarrassed.
I want to travel on a train that goes 300 mph. between Washington, D.C. and New York City. I’d also like to drive on smooth highways. And, while I am at it, I’d like to know that the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control system isn’t relying on antiquated computers.
Somewhere along the way, expecting our national transportation infrastructure to be cutting edge has become more and more like a child wanting a pony under the Christmas tree than a serious policy discussion. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Or, so I am told.
Twice this week I was reminded of the nature of our regional infrastructure, and how we look at it. First, we finally have a new head of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, after an earlier candidate turned down the job “because it was bigger than he thought.” That’s not to suggest the job isn’t big. Paul Wiedefeld, the new general manager and chief executive, has his work cut out for him — taking on a transit system with diminishing ridership and safety issues.
Meanwhile, news of the D.C.-New York Maglev sped into town. The Federal Railroad Administration gave the green light to a $27.8 million grant for the Maryland Department of Transportation and Maryland Economic Development Corp. to evaluate a magnetic-levitation high-speed system. That’s peanuts compared to the estimated $10 billion it would take just to connect Washington to Baltimore.
Many question whether there’s enough capital available to fund either Metro or the proposed Maglev system. In fact, many question whether government can succeed at all in the driver’s seat — naysayers insist government can’t do anything well, and certainly can’t be tasked with managing these large enterprises.
We’ve all heard the skeptics. The current political climate is focused on limiting federal expenditures, and questioning the government’s ability to deliver services. But let’s put the brakes on for a second to check the blind spot in those arguments.
First, the challenge with evaluating infrastructure such as roads, railways and air lanes is that they offer public benefit. We can’t measure the direct economic advantages of such infrastructure, because many things a cutting-edge transportation system provides cannot be measured by simple profit and loss — it is more intricate than that. By measuring public benefit of efficient transit systems against the same criteria as a for-profit business, we lose the ability to make informed decisions about whether something is worth doing for societal purposes. There is a major difference between running a business, and running a government, between looking to turn a profit and building something for the public good.
Second, I must push back against the drum beat that “government can’t do anything right.” Every day government does billions of things well, and those essential things touch our lives. Yes, the news media focus on instances of incompetence, corruption and inefficiency. But there is a broader story of services and products being delivered, and jobs being done, that the private sector simply cannot — or will not — do.
We chronically underfund our transportation infrastructure in the name of financial prudence, and when we are let down by it, promptly say “well, that just proves government doesn’t work.”
We could have trains to zip us to NYC at 300 mph, a Metro that runs on time and a transportation infrastructure that leads the world. All that we need to do is be honest with ourselves about why we do not.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is co-host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.