May 13, 2005
You often hear folks comparing America to the Roman Empire, sometimes for the good and at other times for the bad. Well, in America we certainly don't want to replicate "Imperial Rome," but there is one often overlooked comparison that is quite relevant. Both ancient Rome and modern America developed with the construction of roadways. In fact, part of the reason Rome eventually collapsed was that it stopped building and maintaining its roads. As the Senate takes up the long-awaited highway bill, we ought to consider what happened to Rome's roads or risk facing the same fate.
In America today, 32 percent of our roads are in mediocre condition. Thirty-percent of our bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete. Our "modern" interstate system is now 50 years old. It's clear that unless we start reinvesting in our transportation system, we will be neglecting one of the primary reasons for our nation's success. More to the point, we will lose thousands of jobs.
The U.S. Department Transportation estimates that for every $1 billion in federal highway spending, 47,500 jobs are created. That's quite a staggering number. But were this estimate off by half or even a quarter, it's still a huge impact which cannot be ignored. In America as in ancient Rome our roads are the key to trade, rapid movement of people and goods, and national security. Let's not forget that President Eisenhower commissioned the interstate system during the Cold War, partly as a mechanism for national defense. Thankfully we haven't had to use our interstates to stop an all-out invasion, but as we saw after September, 11, 2001, our highways are critical to protecting our economy in an emergency.
The highway bill now before Congress needs to be passed within the month of May so that we can take full advantage of the peak summer construction season. It's an extension of a previous six-year highway bill called the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). This bill continues the process of reinvesting and refurbishing our nation's highways. The Senate Commerce Committee on which I serve has been responsible for the bill's safety provisions which are a critical part of this legislation.
When my father was killed in a crash on a narrow, two-line, hilly road back in 1969, folks, including him, rarely used seat belts. If he had, he might have lived. Today cars are safer, and many more people buckle up. In 2004, traffic fatalities on our nation's roads were slightly down. That may sound like good news, but it isn't when you consider that 18,000 or 56 percent of last year's fatalities were not wearing seat belts. Consider, too, that 40 percent of crashes were alcohol-related. That means we still have a lot of work to do getting people to do two simple things: putting on a seat belt and putting down the bottle when driving.
The Senate Commerce Committee has taken a new approach to this old problem. Instead of telling states that the federal government will take away federal dollars for low seat belt statistics, we're going to offer incentive grants to increase seat belt usage. After all, when the federal government threatens states likeMississippi with mandates enforced by economic sanctions, that action likely won't receive a high rate of compliance. Folks by nature don't like being threatened, and threats don't induce a positive response. But by partnering with states, rather than penalizing them, we will increase seat belt usage and decrease alcohol-related accidents.
Our highway bill also extends important boating safety programs, truck and bus safety standards, hazardous materials transport protections and even contains new provisions to protect folks from unscrupulous moving scams. It is a big bill that will position our highway system policy for the next five years. It's an overdue bill that should be passed immediately because the day we stop investing in better and safer roads, is the day we have just one more thing in common with Rome. And, Rome fell. (5/13/05)
Senator Lott welcomes any questions or comments about this column. Write to: U.S. Senator Trent Lott, 487 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510 (attn: Press Office)