Dwight Eisenhower may be forgotten by some.
But the World War II hero and Republican president got some welcome attention Monday morning – and by Democrats no less.
What we need today, observed Diane Guitierrez-Scaccetti, the state’s Transportation Commissioner, is the spirit and can-do attitude that created the interstate highway system, which was launched during the Eisenhower Administration.
The contemporary topic of the day was President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan. This proposal would mean oodles and oodles of money for highways, bridges and mass transit.
State officials joined Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez outside Newark’s Penn Station for a pep rally of sorts to hype the idea.
As is his wont, Booker was the more emotional of the two.
He called the plan nothing less than a “major moment in American history,” comparing it to the building of the transcontinental railroad, air travel exploration and, yes, the interstate highway system.
Over time, the launch of what is now a highway system linking all parts of the contiguous United States in 1956 has been hailed as a sterling example of what the federal government can do well.
Some of this is hype, but not all of it. Those old enough to recall the time before interstate highways will remember that a trip through New Jersey – like to the Poconos – was an exhausting journey on congested roads with many traffic lights.
Biden’s plan is not only about roads. It’s about trains and buses too.
In fact, Menendez said there is “no better place to talk about mass transit” than standing outside the Newark train and bus station.
Both senators were grateful for Congress’ initial support of the “American Rescue Plan,” which pumped $2 billion into the coffers of NJ-Transit. The money was badly needed as the pandemic caused ridership to drop sharply.
Things are somewhat getting back to normal, but even so, officials said they expected ridership this year to be only 60 percent of what it was pre-pandemic.
Helping mass transit agencies to cope is one thing; Biden’s plan also looks ahead.
Among other things, it is projected to finance a rail tunnel under the Hudson, modernize train stations and bridges, move to a zero-emissions bus fleet and increase overall rail capacity. And that’s just mass transit – officials said there are 502 bridges and almost 4,000 miles of highways across the state that need attention.
The immediate problem is passing the bill.
Republicans – and even some conservative Democrats – seem fazed by the huge price tag.
Both senators were predictably optimistic. Menendez noted that if need be, the Senate can go the “reconciliation” route, which would bypass a threatened filibuster and require only 51 votes.
No matter how supporters compare what was officially called the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956 to the Biden plan, the bottom line is that politics today is so much more fractious than it was during Ike’s tenure. Which means, of course, that even such a basic government function as fixing a road can become a political row.
The senators fielded a few questions after the official event ended.
Then, they left, saying they needed to “catch a train” back to Washington. Appropriate, one supposes.