When I served in the Congress, infrastructure was one of my constant priorities. In fact, in the Senate I was probably the leading Republican supporter of funding transportation infrastructure of all kinds: Road, highways, bridges, airports, locks and dams.
That was in part because the need was undeniable. Most reliable estimates are that America has trillions of dollars’ worth of needed infrastructure improvements. But it was also because of intangible considerations. A great nation must be an optimistic nation, and an optimistic nation is constantly building the bones and sinews of its economy — its infrastructure — in the belief that the future can be better than the past if we plan for it and invest in it.
Fighting for infrastructure was a constant uphill battle, because the urgent constantly crowded out the important, and the “urgent” was often a short-term political crisis over the budget that consumed all the attention and energy of the Congress.
Unfortunately, not much has changed, as evidenced by what is happening with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Our air transportation system, like much of the nation’s infrastructure, is badly in need of both investment and reform. System related delays caused $28 billion in direct costs to passengers, airlines and airports alone. FAA’s outdated air-traffic system coupled with staffing shortages in that division will continue to result in costly delays.
The challenges are only going to get bigger as time goes on. To take just one example: There are now 1.3 million drones registered with the FAA, up from 470,000 in 2016. What will our space look like when companies like Amazon and FedEx are experimenting with drone delivery, Uber with air taxies and that human space flight is just around the corner? The FAA will be onboarding potentially millions of vehicles into our airspace, without the proper equipment or regulations to do so safely.
Just last week, the Senate confirmed Capt. Steve Dickson as the new chairman of the Federal Aviation Administration. It was an outstanding choice.
Capt. Dickson has spoken many times about the need for a long-term plan to address our critical airspace infrastructure. In the past, Congress has given the FAA enough to exist, but not enough to develop and implement a long-term plan that will allow the agency to move into the 21st Century. In fact, in the funding bill passed earlier this year Congress cut the FAA budget by $549 million.
Some in Congress may have been concerned that the FAA wouldn’t use its funding wisely. Fair enough; but the answer is to fund the FAA sufficiently and then oversee the agency to ensure it has a realistic and effective plan for reform.
Others in Congress are no doubt concerned about the federal debt. Again, that’s understandable. But the real challenge in the federal budget is the large and growing gap between what the government collects for the safety net programs (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) and what is spending on those programs.
Those accounts take up 60 percent of the total budget. If Congress puts them on a sound financial footing, it could well afford to support crucial needs like infrastructure. If it doesn’t, cutting a small agency like the FAA won’t prevent the government from going bankrupt down the road. And in any case, starving the infrastructure budget doesn’t really save money, any more than a homeowner can save money by not fixing a hole in his roof. All that kind of parsimony does is postpone dealing with a problem that is not going away, only gets worse, and will undoubtedly be more expensive the longer we delay in dealing with it.
The point is that a healthy economy is a prerequisite to solving the budget problem, or for that matter any of our problems, and transportation infrastructure — including air transportation — is necessary to a growing economy.
During my years in Congress there was a debate where senators on both sides were opposing even a modest infrastructure bill. Their concern was the federal debt. Of course, I shared that concern, but when it was my turn to speak, I asked the simple question: How are Americans ever going to reduce the deficit if they can’t even get to work? And how can they get to work — how can the country grow — if we don’t invest in transportation?
The health of our air transportation system is at a crucial inflection point. The technology is there to make air traffic control efficient and effective, if we take advantage of it. It’s not a short-term project, and it won’t be cheap, but it will be a lot less expensive than letting the system fall further into obsolescence before we finally act.
With Capt. Steve Dickson in place, the FAA now has a leader who understands the importance of technological improvement. Congress should give him the tools to implement the next generation of air travel and safety, and it ought to be a bipartisan issue. Let’s for once take our eyes off the urgent and focus on what is important for all Americans.
• Jim Talent represented Missouri in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.
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