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Fixing it First

If you want a readable summary of what's wrong with transportation policy in the U.S., you could do far worse than this package of news stories by the McClatchy news service. (Hat tip: Streetsblog DC). It's all here: the Simpsons' monorail-skit style local boosterism for new freeways as an economic cure-all; the backwards policy system that gives greater priority to building new highways than fixing existing ones; the hypocritical bashing of small-bore investments in walking and biking infrastructure even as the big money flows toward useless highway boondoggles; the maddening lack of accurate data on where we're spending federal transportation money and the benefits we're getting for those investments. And on and on.

Heck, at the end of the associated story about a proposed highway in South Carolina, there's even a reference to the hopes of local highway boosters that the involvement of "foreign investors" or conversion of the proposed highway into a toll road will somehow turn an economic turkey into a viable project. Pure comedy gold!

Seriously, though, we've been writing about misaligned transportation investment priorities, the risks of private toll roads, and the need for a new transportation policy that reflects changing trends in housing and vehicle travel for quite some time. So, how refreshing it was last night to hear President Obama in his State of the Union address explicitly call for a "fix-it first" policy for the nation's transportation infrastructure. It is the first time I can recall this particular meme has entered the national political debate, and let's hope it stays there. As the McClatchy report vividly demonstrates, America cannot simply continue wasting money on expensive new highways as transportation funding dries up, our existing roads decay, and Americans increasingly vote with their feet (or wheels) less car-dependent lifestyles.

The Obama administration clearly gets it. By using his bully pulpit to lay out the challenge to Americans, President Obama can ensure that the American people start to get it, too.