Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

RA Board Member Gives Keynote At T4 Launch

Meridian, Miss., Mayor John Robert Smith gives stirring address

Reconnecting America board member John Robert Smith, mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, gave the keynote address on Feb. 26, 2009, as Transportation For America officially launched its full platform.

Here is the full speech.

I want to thank Transportation for America for bringing together more than 200 member organizations throughout the nation to advocate for a new and sustainable transportation system.

It’s a privilege to be among you as we roll out this major bi-partisan effort to help rebuild America’s fractured and dysfunctional transportation system.

The campaign we launch today is the product of so much work by a diverse and representative body of Americans — across the political spectrum — who nevertheless share commitment to this nation.

That commitment mandates that we bring to bear all resources we can muster — federal, state and regional — and drawing on human and financial capital… beginning immediately to reconstruct the nation’s transportation system, especially the long-neglected railroad system we have allowed to atrophy.

To build a system that is indeed a system; an interconnected, functioning whole that can move both people and goods quickly, safely and cost-effectively. So that Americans can once again compete head-to-head with the rest of the developed world and regain the place of leadership we have allowed to slip from our grasp.

In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood the critical importance of connectivity in our vast land. And while his vision was limited to the interstate highway system, his words still ring true:

“Our unity as a nation is sustained by communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods. Together, the unifying forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear — United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.”

While the federal interstate system was boldly conceived and executed, we have been reminded time and again that highways are only one component of a true transportation network. Yet time and time again we have failed to act on those lessons.

Remember the energy crisis of 1979? Following the Iranian revolution, oil production decreased and widespread panic surged through our nation of motorists. Remember the long lines at gas stations? Proposals to have drivers fill up on odd or even days depending on their tag numbers?

We needed transportation choices.

We did not act.

On September 11, 2001 we experienced the most chilling transportation failure in our nation’s history. Who can forget the photos — with the twin towers burning in the background — of New Yorkers walking across Brooklyn Bridge because that was the only way they could get away from danger.

Streets and roads were in complete gridlock and our air travel system was grounded for the first time in our nation’s history. The sudden grounding of flights reverberated across the nation. Nearly 2 million people had to cancel travel plans. Overnight mail delivery was halted. And 460 usually bustling airports were eerily empty or plunged into chaos. Our nation’s trains were the only public transportation moving in or out of our country’s largest city and our nation’s capitol. Ironically, as the Washington Post reported that day, “Officials urged Americans to consider other modes of transportation.”

We desperately needed to invest in other modes of transportation…but we did not act.

The Madrid bombings of 2004 wreaked havoc on that city’s rail system, killing nearly 200 and injuring more than 1,000 others. This transportation crisis is widely blamed for the political fallout that resulted in the defeat of the incumbent president just three days later.

Once again we saw transportation issues being inextricably linked to a nation’s political and economic stability.

The Amtrak board called for heightened rail security.

We did not act.

In the past year back in our own country…we saw gasoline prices spiral upward to hover at or spike over $4 a gallon. Amtrak ridership soared. Cities with light rail systems reported record ridership.

But for my constituents in Meridian, Mississippi and in countless small and mid-sized cities and rural areas around our country options to $4-a-gallon gas were few or nonexistent. The options were to cut back on groceries and other necessities…or stay home.

We needed transportation options for all our people.

We did not act.

Our transportation atrophy is a result of highways that are overcrowded and highway trust funds in jeopardy, airlines in meltdown, and a passenger rail system that has been shamefully neglected. This atrophy is exacerbated by all the added layers of homeland security, an energy crisis, and urgent calls for sane environmental choices in the face of a deteriorating planet. But out of crisis comes great opportunity.

With reauthorization for rail, air and a new transportation bill occurring concurrently — and an engaged public concerned over increasing gas prices, global warming and threatened choices for transportation — I believe the confluence of these events provides unique timing for a new transportation vision.

Last summer, the National Corridors Initiative convened by CEO Jim RePass in St. Louis to raise the national profile on the subject of infrastructure, and to challenge the Presidential candidates to pay attention to the deepening economic crisis being brought on in part by our failure to build America in the very fundamental way that the word “infrastructure” implies.

Very few people at that time were talking about infrastructure because it seemed an arcane and obscure concept…best left to economists or academics. The public wouldn’t get it. But we gathered to make the point we make here again today—infrastructure is destiny.

“The St. Louis Statement” that came out of that gathering says in essence:

“The silence of those now running for the office of President on the growing crisis in our nation’s transportation infrastructure is deafening. We have all heard about the crisis in the economy, and changes in the earth’s climate brought on by global warming, but we have heard nothing about one key element that underlies both of those issues: the movement of goods and people, our very freedom of mobility. Yet few national issues offer a greater opportunity for imaginative change.”

And we asked the candidates three questions:

  1. Do you understand that transportation must be treated as a system, not merely a collection of competing modes, when setting and executing policy?
  2. How do you propose to restore our transportation system to health?
  3. And what are you going to do, specifically, to obtain the funding needed to do that?

As the campaign progressed, Barack Obama began to hammer on the theme of infrastructure and its importance to our future. Since his election, the President has continued in that vein and just last week in signing the stimulus bill he committed himself and this nation to rebuilding our crumbling highways, investing in our overtaxed air system, and building a true high-speed rail network that will allow America to once again take its place in the leadership of world economies.

To reach that laudable goal, those of us who advocate for transportation and the business community must work together to get thousands of people back to work now — and build a transportation system for today and tomorrow that will lower the cost of doing business in America, ease the transportation congestion crisis and the wear-and-tear punishment of highways, integrate with major airports across America and help restore our nation to health. And we need the support of a Congress whose members reach out not only across the aisles separating their parties but across the geography separating their states.

It is time once again to reach across the figurative aisle — from south to north and from east to west — and get this country moving again.

And I see great promise. My fellow mayors are the most effective voice for our American cities on Capitol Hill. They understand that transportation is about connecting from city center to city center. I see mayors of cities large and small energized and committed to addressing these issues.

On the state level, I see states like Wisconsin, Illinois, California and North Carolina investing in all modes of transportation.

I see the chairman of the House Transportation Appropriations Committee of the Mississippi Legislature passing a bill appropriating state funds to match federal dollars for high-speed rail development in my state.

I see this body convening the best minds in the transportation world in open discussion and debate about our shared transportation future and crafting recommendations for our leaders.

All of these things give me great hope that we will finally see modes of transportation as feeding one another, not competing, as interconnected partners, not isolated silos unto themselves.

To cement those connections and ensure that the modes of transportation can and will support and sustain each other, we must establish clear national transportation objectives that will lead to the attainment of critical goals: Like energy security, climate protection, access to transportation opportunities, and the safety and health of our people.

Consider this simple possibility: A citizen in Newton, Mississippi buys a ticket and boards a bus, his bag with him, and a small container of La-Z-Boy recliners, made in his hometown, on the back of the same bus.

Both passenger and freight travel to Meridian’s multi-modal station where, still using the same ticket, that passenger and his bag board a higher-speed Amtrak Crescent bound for the international airports in either Atlanta or New Orleans, with the container of La-Z-Boys on the same train. At either airport he boards a jet bound for Orly Airport in Paris — still with the same ticket and with the La-Z-Boys in the cargo hold — and when he arrives his bag is with him. What a novel concept.

With the serious and sobering issues facing our country today, the timing is right for this gathering. But if this campaign is merely another convocation to puzzle over transportation’s navel and not act, then we have wasted time and energy.

These issues are complex and daunting… but we must act and act now. Our children and grandchildren will hold us accountable.

To fail them is to leave our great nation… as President Eisenhower warned… “a mere alliance of many separate parts.”

This we cannot do.