Down Under Transportation Infrastructure Is a Priority - Why Isn't It in the U.S.?

fish eye view of the city...
fish eye view of the city...

I just returned from three weeks in Australia. As an American, it was sobering - bordering on embarrassing - to see the difference between the U.S. and Australia's highway and transportation infrastructure.

Every Australian airport was functional, clean and had great service, and every plane I travelled on was clean and in excellent condition. Every city has significant public transportation covering all its' quadrants. In Perth, the capital of Western Australia, the 1.8 million population are served by Transperth, which operates an integrated bus, rail, and ferry system. They also have the Central Area Transit (CAT) system that uses buses to pick up at the end of other lines and make connections to areas that regular routes don't cover, and it is free. Sitting in my hotel room, I could review the local area's transportation system map and figure out easily how to get where I needed to go and get there in 45 minutes or less anywhere in entire metropolitan area.

Landing at LAX on my way home, I had a rude awakening as the airport was less than clean; large sections were under construction with very poor signage; the loud speaker announcements were of poor quality and hard to understand; and people were standing in line for as long as 40 minutes simply to get something to eat. The plane I flew on once I was back in the U.S. was dirty, had broken window shades and the light above my seat was out. And I returned to find that Congress had yet to get a deal on a highway bill and was in the midst of passing yet another extension - this time a three-week extension just as the three-month extension passed in July had run its course.

Our state highway administrators have not been able to plan for more than two years at a time for a decade because of Congress' hit-or-miss approach to infrastructure funding. When you consider the size and scope of the type of projects needed to keep our roads and bridges in safe and in working order, it is clear that the states have done some difficult juggling to keep things moving. But at some point they are going to run out of any such moves. Congress owes it to them, and the taxpayers, to get their act together and pass a six-year bill and send it to the president's desk. As President Obama noted in July when he signed a three-month extension, "We can't keep on funding transportation by the seat of our pants."

At the same time, here in our nation's capital, with a population of just over half a million, the National Transportation Safety Board has determined that Metro's safety problems are so severe that they have asked Congress to reclassify Metro as a commuter rail system so it can be subjected to tougher regulations and penalties. If Congress agrees with the NTSB recommendation, Metro would be the first urban subway system to be reclassified.

While I was in Perth, the discussion at dinner one night turned to government funding, and I noted the problems Congress has with passing a budget. One of my Australian colleagues, a civil servant, asked how the American government could possibly function if it doesn't have a budget. My response was, "not very well." I am not sure what I would have answered if asked to explain the dysfunction that is ingrained in our inability to fund our roads, bridges, rails and airports. We deserve more from our elected officials.