"Transportation is the No. 1 major problem in our country," U.S. Rep. Don Young told the Kenai Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.
The comment isn't especially surprising coming from the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infra-structure, but in an age of collapsing Social Security, struggling schools and rising health care costs, it's not a popular viewpoint a fact Young was quick to admit.
"You don't hear much about it," he said.
Still, he maintains a solid transportation system is integral to the success of the nation's economy, as well as a number of other problems.
"All other programs feed off a good transportation system," said Young, who has represented Alaska for 30 years in Congress.
"We spend $70 billion a year sitting still. We lose a week and a half of work time each year sitting still."
An improved transportation infrastructure is crucial to getting people and products to their destinations promptly and efficiently, he said.
It also can improve quality of life, he said, telling the hypothetical story of a man coping with a day full of gridlock.
"You leave home at 6:30 to get to work at 8. People are honking their horns, waving at you with one finger. You get to work late and your boss bawls you out," he said. "Your stomach is upset. Your productivity is down. You go to lunch but don't digest well, because you're still mad.
"You have maybe one or two hours of good work before you start worrying about the commute home. You miss your son's basketball game and come home too late for dinner, so your wife won't talk to you."
And while traffic on the Kenai Peninsula hasn't reached levels of absurdity yet, Alaska as a whole still suffers from substandard roads, Young said.
"We haven't had a new road in this state since 1972," Young said. "I'm committed to having a new road in the next four years."
Among his top choices are a road crossing the Knik Arm, new roads in Southeast Alaska, where citizens quickly learned the inefficiency of depending on air travel in the days just after Sept. 11, 2001, or a road through the Lake Iliamna area, which he said would open up the Bristol Bay area.
He also said he is a firm believer in the benefits of railroad and water transportation.
To pay for all the improvements to the transportation infrastructure, Young said he believes "2 cents makes sense." Though he said he's heard a lot of outrage about such a plan, which he calls a user fee rather than a tax, he continues to believe the public must be willing to chip in for their own benefit.
"You're already being taxed because you're sitting still," he said.
In addition to improved ground transportation, Young said his committee has been working on a bill to take the financial burden of excess security off regional airports.
"It's an unfunded mandate," he said.
But, he added, the additional security in airports since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is necessary. In fact, he said he believes even more security is needed.
"I'm not convinced we have done the job we should have done," he said. "We must get more technology to identify potential terrorists."
More security should not come at the expense of freedom, though, Young said.
He is one of the House members who has taken a stance advocating review of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Constitutional validity of which has been questioned by smaller government groups across the country.
"I voted for the PATRIOT Act," Young admitted. "So did 434 other representatives. We got caught up in the heat of the moment. The problem was no one read it until after the vote."
He said the act includes broad powers that could be misused by the U.S. government, and he advocates letting the act lapse with its sunset clause.
Some other politicians are trying to do away with the sunset clause, though, or to institute USA PATRIOT Act II, "which is worse than the first one," Young said.
After finishing his noteless, short speech "An average fifth-grader has a 6 1/2 minute attention span. An average adult has an attention span of about 4 1/2 minutes," he quipped Young opened the floor to questions from the audience, addressing concerns ranging from the possibility of a gas line provision in the national energy bill to the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act on Alaska.
"We're looking at (gas) supplies, and supply is down even though there are more wells," he said. "If we don't build a (gas) line, the U.S. will be dependent on Indonesia and even Russia, and we'll be back where we are with OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries)."
He added, however, that Alaska needs to be careful not to ship all its gas to the Lower 48 or other countries, as residents here could end up facing a shortage themselves.
"It would be silly to send it all to the Lower 48," he said. "We have a responsibility to make sure people have access to resources."
As for the education situation in the state, Young said he always has believed the No Child Left Behind Act would require flexibility.
"I warned that it doesn't fit everybody," he said. "(U.S. Education Secretary Rod) Paige was up here, and I'm hoping he'll take into consideration what he saw and offer some flexibility."
Young also took a moment to discuss fisheries and resource development in the state.
He said he is pleased to see the "organic" listing for Alaska salmon and hopes that effective advertising will help the fishing industry out of its slump. He also said the state needs to be proactive in marketing of halibut as well, making sure it doesn't fall into the same trap years from now.
Overall, he said he is optimistic about the future of Alaska.
"We have tremendous resources in this state, including human resources. We need the spirit to do the job to provide for the future."
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