Happening Now

Transportation Shutdown Ends Government Shutdown

January 28, 2019

The government shutdown is over thanks to airport delays: there are some important lessons to take away from this.

by Sean Jeans-Gail

The government shutdown is over thanks to airport delays.

For all the political posturing and negotiations, it was the impending collapse of publicly supported transportation infrastructure that forced a compromise. Bloomberg News summarizes the timeline of events:

On Friday mid-morning, flights into New York’s LaGuardia Airport were halted for more than an hour because of a ground stop ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration. The delays affected other East Coast airports including Newark and Philadelphia. The FAA cited staffing issues in the Washington area and in Jacksonville, Florida.

LaGuardia doesn’t crack the top 10 in terms of the busiest U.S. airports, but along with Newark, it’s used every day by thousands of business travelers and others heading into and out of New York City. Washington’s Reagan National Airport, also affected on Friday, is used regularly by members of Congress to return to their home districts.

The LaGuardia problems combined with other potential negative outcomes -- including possible delays to federal tax refunds -- to force Trump and members of Congress to respond without delay. Within hours, the government was on the way to reopening.

There are some important lessons to take away from this. The first is that the government plays a far larger role in maintaining and operating transportation infrastructure than most Americans realize. This should be “Exhibit A” next time a passenger rail advocate finds themselves confronted with the (fallacious) argument that taxpayers shouldn’t be saddled with the cost of investing in rail systems. The fact is, taxpayers are already supporting all kinds of private sector transportation systems, and these systems would break down quickly if that funding was shut off.

The second is that U.S. infrastructure, while directly shaped by U.S. politics, is governed by its own physical realities that we ignore at our peril. However dysfunctional our politics grows, this is not a problem that can be kicked down the road. A failure to address our growing investment backlog will have immediate, material consequences for all Americans. This is something voters should think about as their elected representatives spend this year—and likely the year after—drafting the next generation of transportation policy.