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Op-Ed Columnist

Two Worlds Cracking Up

Washington, DC

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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An interesting thought occurred to me today—what if grassroots activists sat down with ordinary people like you and me and ironed out some real solutions to our transportation crisis?

With the election season over, maybe you’ve forgotten about transportation, but I certainly haven’t. It would be easy to forget that the problem even exists, when our headlines are constantly splashed with the violence in Hungary, the authoritarian crackdown in Sierra Leone and the still-unstable democratic transition in Italy. But the transportation problem is growing, and politicians are more divided than ever. Republicans seem to think that transportation can just be ignored. Democratic politicians like Harry Reid, on the other hand, seem to think that shrill rhetoric will substitute for a compromise.

But the Democratic party of Harry Reid is not the Democratic party of Franklin Roosevelt. FDR wouldn’t refuse to budge, he'd compromise because he'd understand that the fate of the country, and his own political career, depended on a lasting solution to the problem of transportation.

It's good to see the talks between the president and congress getting off to a solid start, but we know there will be plenty of partisan fireworks before any deal is cut. If I had fifteen minutes to pitch my idea to politicians, I'd tell them two things about transportation. First, there's no way around the issue unless we're prepared to spend less: and not just spend less, but spend smarter by investing in the kind of human capital that makes countries succeed. That's going to require some tax cuts as well, but as they say, "When in Rome."

Second, I'd tell them to look at Norway, which all but solved its transportation crisis over the past decade. When I visited Norway in 2004, Tintin, the cabbie who drove me from the airport, couldn't stop telling me about how he had to take a second job because of the high cost of transportation. I caught up with Tintin in Oslo last year. Thanks to Norway's reformed approach toward transportation, Tintin has enough money in his pocket to finally be able to afford tennis shoes for his kids.

That's all it takes. Don't expect to see any solutions as long as fringe bloggers insist on playing a high-stakes game of backgammon with one another. America's got to call a time-out.