When it comes to infrastructure, it can be argued that no problem is truly new. Thus, much can be learned from what has and what hasn’t worked in the past. Addressing the dire needs of the nation’s declining infrastructure comes with the release of “Volume 8: Rebuilding a Crumbling Nation.” This effort by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center’s far-reaching First Year Project is an ongoing initiative to provide nonpartisan, history-based insight into major issues facing the new administration.
Experts from around the United States contributed essays on everything from transportation to communication systems. These important insights can be instrumental for lawmakers as President Trump’s promises for infrastructure move toward becoming reality.
Historical insight from essays include:
“One Giant Pothole: America needs a robust, long-term plan to fix it’s infrastructure” by Ray LaHood: The former secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (2009 to 2013) states, “To compete on a global scale and provide our citizens with the quality of life they have come to expect, the United States must have a first-rate infrastructure.”
In order to be successful, he notes the importance of good leadership from the top down. “Leadership takes vision to see the big picture and courage to do the right thing,” he says. Additionally, while there have been problems with moving things forward in Washington, LaHood says, “infrastructure policy has long been an area ripe for finding common ground. After all, there are no Republican roads, nor are there Democratic bridges.” Thus, he believes government must work together with the private sector.
LaHood brings forth concepts for a long-term strategy, including “the gas tax is not sustainable as a long-term solution, and other options must be explored.” This is because for any long-term strategy to be taken seriously, there must be viable options to fund and finance it.
“Fix the funding: We can no longer afford to neglect our transportation infrastructure” by Antonio R. Villaraigosa: The former Los Angeles mayor and former chair of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (Metro) Board of Directors has extensive transportation experience. He states America can no longer ignore infrastructure needs. He notes, “Historically, transportation investment at the national level has been a bipartisan—indeed, even a nonpartisan—issue.”
He argues that success is possible with “sustainable and predictable funding plus locally controlled policy innovation.” Villaraigosa’s essay includes numerous recommendations regarding where the monies should come from. He, like LaHood, questions the gas tax and suggests other ideas are necessary. “The federal gas tax should be maintained, not replaced,” he says, while also bringing forth the concept of a vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) tax and congestion pricing.
The long game: The next president must lay the foundation for a next-generation economy” by Margaret O’Mara: The author is a historian and associate professor at the University of Washington. She reminds that innovation isn’t simply invention of new things; it can be derived from the expansion and maintenance of old ideas that have not yet been fully realized. “History provides powerful lessons and debunks popular myths of where innovation comes from,” she says.
O’Mara, in looking back at the presidency of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his support for the interstate highway system found it “stemmed most immediately from his World War II experience as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.” His “New Look” at the military included seeing the technological strength. This helped mobilize scientific people and institutions, eventually leading to the development of what is now Silicon Valley.
O’Mara reminds that, “the next president doesn’t need to start from scratch” because there are still extraordinary ideas out there that can keep flowing through the pipeline. She also notes that Eisenhower and even the popular John F. Kennedy faced political pressures, “including considerable opposition in Congress to some of their ideas, but they still made a case for bold action and sustained investment.”
“Be Like Ike: Eisenhower’s Approach to Building the Interstate System Offers Lessons” by Peter Norton: In his 2009 book, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Norton examined how public policy concerning streets was redirected due to the automobile. In this essay, the University of Virginia professor helps explain what can be learned from the triumphs and shortcomings of the Federal Highway Act of 1956.
Unlike President Trump, Eisenhower had a Congress controlled by the opposition party. Norton points out that despite this challenge and “despite a commitment to limit bureaucracy and the federal budget, and despite a personal distaste for congressional politics, Eisenhower achieved, in his first term, one of the most ambitious domestic policy achievements of any presidency. His success offers practical lessons to the next administration in Washington.”
There are numerous lessons to be learned by exploring all the essays in Volume 8 of the First Year Project. As George Santayana famously said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” These essays prompt Americans to recognize important lessons learned by other U.S. presidents can be beneficial to this administration.