Thanks to Congress, Kiss Roads and Bridges Goodbye?

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The collapse of a bridge on Interstate 5 on May 23, 2013 near Mt. Vernon, Washington. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
The collapse of a bridge on Interstate 5 on May 23, 2013 near Mt. Vernon, Washington. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
The end of the Interstate 5 bridge in May 2013 in Washington state.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The phrase is often used to describe the power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics, to bolster an argument. It’s also easily used to cast doubt upon statistics put forward by the other guy. The term was popularized by Mark Twain, who attributed it to the 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. The phrase isn’t found in any of Disraeli’s papers or any articles about his speeches to Parliament, so the attribution is doubtful. The statement nonetheless is timely and certainly accurate.

American politicians are addicted to statistics, and we the people happily accept whichever interpretation seems right to us. Look at this month’s latest jobs report: 288,000 jobs were created and the nation’s unemployment rate dropped to 6.1%. Both the White House and Wall Street were jubilant, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose to an all-time high. But conservatives were happy to jump on the confusing numbers that lay beneath this rosy veneer. The reality is that last month 523,000 full-time jobs were lost, while 799,000 part-time jobs were created. Is this a onetime anomaly, or a trend of employers shifting from full-time employees to part-time workers? Neither the White House nor the Department of Labor nor U.S. economists really know. We’re in uncharted waters here.

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It seems to me we should take most government statistics with a grain of salt, no matter whose rhetoric we believe. The administration will celebrate the June numbers: “Job gains were widespread.” Opponents will respond: “Full-time jobs cratered in June.” The numbers in the monthly employment report can easily bolster either position. Either way, Twain or Disraeli had it right.

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While the June job report was grabbing all the headlines, behind the scenes there is a danger lurking on the horizon in the form of a real economic crisis that will not be subject to interpretation, statistics or outright misrepresentations. It will be real and felt by every individual and business in this country. It might very well affect your safety or that of your children. It’s already been labeled the “construction shutdown,” and every member of Congress and their staff bear clear responsibility should it occur. Unless reauthorized and replenished, The Highway Trust Fund, which is financed by gasoline taxes and pays for transportation and infrastructure projects, will soon run out of money. Kaput. Finished. Construction and repairs will stop, just like that. In keeping with its usual mode of operation, Congress, in its wisdom, rather than remaining in session to hammer out a solution to this looming crisis, first chose to recess, like young children in school. And now there are competing House and Senate versions of a bill to keep the fund going — which means a stalemate.

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The Obama administration has estimated that more than 700,000 jobs will be lost and 112,000 active construction projects could be delayed, deferred or halted if Congress fails to address the issue by Aug. 1. Both the White House and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — unlikely bedfellows, to say the least — are begging Congress to find a solution. However, Republicans and Democrats alike are running scared. The midterm elections are less than four months away, and even reasonable Republicans (pardon the term) fear the wrath of the Tea Party, which would seemingly rather revert to dirt roads and dangerous bridges than reauthorize and replenish a reasonable tax. Every mayor of every town in America knows he or she can be re-elected or booted out based on the condition of local roads, alleys and bridges. Fix the potholes or lose your job. It’s not rocket science. This issue can’t wait for a nice, rainy day when the playgrounds are closed. In fact, this issue will haunt all of us sooner than later.

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We’re also not talking about access to parks, like the temporary shutdowns of government we experience from time to time. Imagine collapsing bridges, potholed roads, derailing trains, dangerous tunnels and the permanent loss of hundreds of thousands of real manufacturing and construction jobs. This is the picture of America that our current Congress is painting while on recess. I’ve put the blame on Congress — but a little belongs on the rest of us, too. Where is the outrage from we, the people? Sure, Federal transportation projects need to be fairly and carefully vetted — we don’t need another “bridge to nowhere.” But how will you feel when you can’t get to work or get the children to school because a tunnel or bridge is closed indefinitely, waiting for Congress to go to work instead of dialing for dollars? Surely even Tea Partiers must recognize the need for school buses to ride on safe roads. Congress, for a change, must act responsibly. Is that too much to ask? Do your part as well: demand action, and if it’s not forthcoming, vote the children off the swings and slides of unique playground and send them home.

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