Often Overlooked, Infrastructure Receives John Oliver Boost

For a few short minutes two weeks ago, 4.1 million Americans may have understood the problems of failing to invest in our nation's crumbling infrastructure.

It wasn't because a bridge collapsed; it wasn't because a sinkhole opened up in the middle of a highway; and it wasn't because of an accident on an aging transit system. It was because one comedian, John Oliver, decided to use it as a laugh line. But the seriousness of his message could not have been clearer when he put it this way:

The lack of political urgency in tackling this problem is insane. And you cannot tell me that you are not interested in this, because every summer people flock to see our infrastructure threatened by terrorists or aliens. But we should care just as much when it's under threat from the inevitable passage of time.

It shouldn't take a comedian cracking jokes for us to realize the dire state of our infrastructure, but that's the trouble with a crisis that hides in plain sight. Despite record ridership year after year, deteriorating transit systems are cutting service and jobs, leaving Americans across the country without a way to get where they need to go. Of the more than four million miles of public roadways that cross the nation, carrying everyone from commuters to freight truckers to mail carriers, 63 percent are in poor condition. And of our 600,000 bridges, some 70,000 need major repair or replacement.

John Oliver thinks the problem is that nobody has "made a blockbuster movie about the importance of routine maintenance and repair." But while I love the idea of Infrastructure: The Movie, I'm not sure that's what's stopping us from making sure we have a first-class passenger and freight transportation system that can create and sustain good jobs.

The real problem is that the same movie keeps playing in Washington and it always ends the same way: Congress fails to pass a surface transportation funding bill that actually takes into account the long term, that actually makes it possible for state departments of transportation, transportation authorities, and businesses large and small to get moving on clearing the massive backlog of transit and highway projects. The problem is a lack of accountability.

On May 31, the Highway Trust Fund, which funds our nation's highways and transit systems, faces insolvency. This isn't an unexpected, unforeseeable problem. The fund was due to go bankrupt at the end of this past August, and instead of passing an effective long-term bill, Congress decided that an 8-month patch would be the better solution. Members of Congress and the administration are now faced with an opportunity to prove to voters that they can put aside petty political quarrels and work together when it counts. They have two months to find a solution that will allow us to modernize our highway infrastructure and expand transit systems, and stop giving comedians more content for their satirical news shows.

It's been more than 21 years since the gas tax, the Trust Fund's revenue source, was raised, and we haven't had a full surface transportation reauthorization since 2005. There's no excuse for this kind of delinquency. But at least if the American public can't hold Congress accountable, perhaps a comedian can.