Advocates behind a new smartphone app hope it will bridge the gap between Americans' frustration with traffic and lawmakers' failure to develop a long-term way of paying for infrastructure.
The "I'm Stuck" app, released Tuesday, allows users to document their travel troubles and automatically fire off a message to their senators and member of Congress calling for increased federal investment in transportation.
The role of the app could be significant.
Transportation advocates have long been frustrated by the fact that complaining about traffic seems to be a favorite American pastime, yet Americans' anecdotal frustration with potholes, traffic jams and unreliable transit hasn't translated into much political pressure. Polls show that virtually nobody considers infrastructure to be America's biggest problem, despite the rhetoric surrounding the issue.
Moreover, while there's no shortage of federal lawmakers who call for increased investment in infrastructure, there have been few serious ideas put forward on how to actually pay for it. That inaction comes even though federal budget analysts continue to offer dire warnings about the government's depleting transportation funds.
Advocates at Building America's Future, the group behind the app, hope "I'm Stuck" can help address both those dichotomies.
Here's how it works: when a user downloads the app, he's prompted to enter his address, which is then used to determine who represents him in Congress. When a user encounters a transportation problem, the idea is that he'll fire up the app and select what the problem is from a menu of choices --traffic jam, tarmac delays, overcrowded subways, and others.
Depending on the problem, a different pre-written message is generated, but each is a variation on the idea that it's time for Congress to make a serious investment in transportation infrastructure. The final line is the same in each message: "It's important. It's your decision. It's past time." Users can also customize their note before it's emailed to their lawmakers.
The app contains a warning that it shouldn't be used while driving, and messages can be saved for later.
"We hope this app will be a permission slip from the American people (and) say to their congressman 'yes, this is a serious problem... we want you to invest in building our future,'" former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Rendell, co-chair of Building America’s Future, cited the overwhelming majority of local transportation-related referenda that pass as evidence that "voters are way ahead of their representatives" on the issue. He rightly, acknowledged the fact that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have yet to figure out a way to develop a long-term, sustainable funding stream to support transportation infrastructure (though in their defense, many Americans likely hate tax hikes even more than potholes and traffic jams).
Marcia Hale, president of Building America's Future, said the app is a quick and easy way for people to communicate with Congress about something that impacts their daily lives.
Hale, who's worked as staff in both White House and Congress, said letters like these can actually have an impact, so long as they come in significant volumes.
"There's nothing like getting a lot of mail to get a member of Congress's attention," Hale said.