Jack Wells: Pat Moynihan at the Crossroads of U.S. Transportation Policy

jack-wells.480.323.sAs part of a celebration marking the publication of “Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary,” AAPSS invited Jack Wells to read one of the letters of Senator Moynihan included in the book and comment on its significance. Wells is the Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Transportation. The following is a transcript of Well’s selection, which may also be listened to or downloaded as a podcast.

Letter from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Max Frankel, December 7, 1991

Jack Wells: United States Senators serve two constituencies: their nation and their state. Daniel Patrick Moynihan served both constituencies superbly well.  He stood up for America and he stood up for New York. Where have I heard that line before? I want to read two excerpts that speak to his focus on those two constituencies. And the first is also a letter to Max Frankel at the New York Times in which he addresses a matter of great importance to the State of New York.

Dear Max,

There must be days when you wish that the Times was not the newspaper of record.  But it is, thank Heaven, and I need your help. The Transportation Bill, passed last week, which the President will probably sign the week after next, provides for New York to receive five billion dollars as reimbursement for having contributed the thruway, that is the New York State Thruway, to the interstate system back in 1956. Specifically, three-hundred and thirty-seven million dollars per year for fifteen years, starting in FY1996. The first two annual installments are in the current bill.  It has taken me thirty-five years to bring this off. I was in the governor’s office in Albany in 1956 when the interstate got started. I thought it was madness of New York not to insist on payment then and there, settling instead for a vague understanding in the 1956 legislation that levied the gas tax and established a trust fund, a tax we would pay to build freeways elsewhere. We have since lost one-third of our congressional delegation. Anyway, my moment came this year and I shall soon have it in statute. But for obvious reasons, I cannot make a big deal of it on the floor, and neither did the Times. At least I cannot find any reference and, believe me, I have searched. This means there is no record of this event. This is real money, trust fund money. But New Yorkers will never get it if New Yorkers don’t know about it.  Nor those in New Jersey and Connecticut, who are also included. Think what we could do with an annuity of a third of a billion dollars a year for fifteen years. One of our two wonderful undertakings, to startle the world as did the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair where the interstate idea was born.  But there needs to be a record. 

I do not know if he ever got his article in the New York Times or not. The second excerpt I want to read is not from one of the letters, which are a little thin on transportation topics, no problem with that. It is from a document written a few months earlier. The report of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works whose subcommittee on surface transportation Senator Moynihan chaired, reporting ISTEA – the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 – reporting ISTEA to the Senate floor. The report was unusual in that it contained a thirteen-page introductory statement; most of these reports are, of course, written by congressional staff. This introductory statement, as will become obvious, I think, was actually written by Senator Moynihan himself. He starts out:

The first federal highway program was signed into law by Thomas Jefferson on March 29, 1806, 2 Stat 357. 

He then goes on to outline the history of federal transportation policy, ending with the construction of the interstate highway system:

The plain fact is that traffic congestion has grown during this period of massive highway construction.  We have to face the fact that even if we had greater resources than we do, adding to highway capacity does not any longer seem a promising road to increased highway efficiency. In city after city we heard about horrendous congestion problems, yet this was a problem the interstate system was meant to resolve. This is the oldest of urban problems. Rome struggled with it until the Goths arrived. We have done the same. And I am tempted to say our Goths have arrived too. 

The committee approached its task in the context of three realities.  First, the United States has entered a period of general dis-investment in infrastructure [sound familiar?]. Second, the level of federal investment in infrastructure generally is not likely to rise at any time soon. Third, if we will learn from the past and think about the future, we must get more for our money. Given that investment is declining and that it is not likely to rise anytime soon, it follows that the surpassing theme of the post-interstate period must be efficiency. Hence, the Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1990. The heart of the matter is productivity. In the manufacturing sector of the American economy, productivity growth has been robust.  As, for example, in durable goods where productivity has been growing at the astounding rate of 6.0 percent per year.  But everything that is manufactured must be transported and productivity growth in transportation has been flat to the point of being nonexistent. In April, the Honorable Michael J. Boskin, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, advised the committee, “Output per hour in the transportation sector, broadly defined, rose at only 0.2 percent annually from 1979 to 1988.”  The contrast is incredible. A growth rate of six percent per year means that productivity will double in twelve years.  If the whole of the economy were to grow at such a rate, living standards would increase five-fold in the course of a single generation. By contrast, if the economy were to grow at the rate of only 0.2 percent per year, it would take twelve generations for living standards to double.  Jordan, that is Philip Jordan, in his book The National Road, reports that the immigrant Irish laborers who did much of the pick and shovel work on the national road were paid six dollars per month. A 0.2 percent productivity growth rate since that time would have brought their monthly wages up to nine dollars a month now, or one-hundred eight dollars per year. Now clearly this would not seem a satisfactory growth rate to most of us. But that is our growth rate in transportation.  Just as clearly it is not something that we can blame on foreign competition, not, mind, that some won’t try. But the committee feels there ought to be a more constructive outlet for dissatisfaction, namely to think harder and to do better.  No one seems to know just why productivity in transportation is so low.  For one thing, there is a stunning absence of data, facts. Transportation economics is clearly held back by the paucity of reliable information. It is for this reason that the Act proposes to establish a Bureau of Transportation Statistics in the Department of Transportation. 

And he then goes on to discuss the need to boost productivity in transportation by spending more on technological innovation in transportation such as high-speed rail and intelligent transportation systems. And then he discusses some of the shortcomings of planning that Genie adverted to:

The interstate system map made you think of great ribbons of concrete, crossing Kansas to the horizon.  This was true so far as the prairies were concerned, and these great cross-continental routes have been a brilliant success. But this was only half of the story, or rather less than half.  From the beginning, most interstate system funds were scheduled to be used in cities. The roads as planned were simply too big for most cities as they then existed. Instead they would smash through, wrecking and dividing and segregating as they went, moving jobs out and leaving the jobless behind in what has become a permanent mismatch. I argued [in the same 1960 article that Genie mentioned] that the character of American cities would be changed beyond recognition and redemption. Our legislation requires large metropolitan areas to begin serious, formal transportation planning.  Had this been specified in the legislation providing for the interstate system, we possibly would have had a more efficient transportation network today. But that was then, now is now.

And there you are. Thank you.

Jack Wells

Press play to hear recording.