While there is a lot of political analysis occurring over who met, exceeded, or missed expectations in the long awaited first presidential debate held on September 26 at Hofstra University, tourism industry advocates can take great comfort from one of the exchanges between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as it related to addressing infrastructure needs.
To set the stage on this issue, our economic sector has been at the forefront on advocating more investment in infrastructure, due to a tremendous backlog in the maintenance of highways, bridges, tunnels, seaways, and airports, as well as upgrading these transportation system elements and taking steps to enhance them with improved intermodal means to move traffic from airports to city centers. In recent years, Congress has struggled to address even part of the backlog, due to the conservative spending policies of the Republican led House and Senate.
For example, the most recent transportation funding bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, appropriates $305 billion over the next five years with $205 billion specifically earmarked for highways and $48 billion for transit. The legislation was signed into law by President Obama on December 4, 2015. This, however, compares to a six year funding request by the Obama Administration for $478 billion, thereby shortchanging transportation needs at least $100 billion for the first five years.
Even the Obama Administration request was less than calculated needs by some standards. The late Congressman Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, who served as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, prior to his defeat for re-election in 2010, pegged the infrastructure needs at a full trillion dollars six years ago, when briefing travel industry representatives.
In a discussion which started out on the cost of the war in Iraq (and whether Trump supported it while Clinton was voting for it in the Senate), Trump cited that the United States had wasted six trillion dollars on the war and that the money could have addressed the infrastructure backlog, including our “third world airports” at least two times over.
With the history of the Democratic Party being one of supporting more funding for infrastructure, as illustrated by the more generous Obama Administration request, having the Republican nominee speak for putting people back to work on transportation needs is a winner for tourism, which is very transportation dependent. Inbound tourism leads the list of our industry wanting to see these improvements, because inbound visitors are the most likely to have experiences with other destinations where infrastructure investments have seen a higher prioritization. Certainly, recent visitors to China, for example, have noted the phenomenal improvements in its airports and intermodal connectivity in cities, such as Shanghai.
With the election only six weeks away, inbound tour operators should be prepared to start discussions with their Congressional representatives on the next round of transportation funding and use the comments of Donald Trump to help develop a strong bipartisan consensus on this issue in the next Congress.