By Clifford F. Lynch
Asked late last year what 2007 might bring, Americans shared their
predictions for the economy, the climate and energy prices Ė and none of it
looked very good. According to a poll conducted by the Associated Press, 70
percent of us expect a natural disaster and about half believe bird flu will
arrive in the United States this year. Respondents werenít overly optimistic
about fuel costs either; 93 percent predicted gas prices would continue their
Things arenít so very different among members of the nationís supply
chain community. Supply professionals, for example, share the general publicís
concern about rising fuel costs. Theyíre also worried about capacity
shortfalls, the long-standing truck driver shortage, port congestion and
security. And though they believe the economy will grow, they foresee sluggish
growth at best.
Surprisingly and somewhat disturbingly, however, the nationís
transportation infrastructure received little attention. Granted, fuel prices
and the driver shortage are important. But even plunging fuel prices and a flood
of qualified new drivers wonít do us much good if the infrastructure isnít
For those who wonder just how bad it could be, consider this: According to
the U.S. Census Bureau, the population will reach 400 million by 2043. Based on
current construction levels, we can expect highway capacity to have expanded by
9 percent by that time. But traffic will have surged by 135 percent. As a
result, says Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation
Builders Association, by 2043, the average motorist can expect to spend four
weeks a year stuck in traffic. "It is a recipe for a gridlocked
nation," he says, "unless major steps are taken soon to add new
highway and transit capacity."
The Department of Transportation is concerned. Recently appointed Secretary
Mary Peters has raised the topic in hearings around the country.
The American Trucking Associations is concerned. In November, it issued a
list of the trucking industryís top 10 problems. Congestion ranked number 5,
infrastructure was number 7, and taxes/highway funding appeared in ninth place.
The three are closely intertwined, of course; in addition to more capacity, we
need a safe and adequate infrastructure and, most importantly of all, someone to
pay the bill.
Some voters are concerned as well. On Nov. 7, 2006, voters in 14 states
77 percent of the 30 transportation funding-related initiatives that appeared
on state ballots. This is encouraging. It seems to indicate that the average
citizen is getting the idea.
The 64 dollar question, however, is whether the new Congress will grasp the
importance of addressing the looming transportation infrastructure crisis. We
all remember the "too little, too late" Transportation Equity Act of
2005. That was the one with the 6,376 special interest projects, or
"earmarks." Citizens Against Government Waste President Tom Schatz
called it a "fiscal train wreck." And to make matters worse, it
expires in 2009.
The new congressional leadership has taken steps to freeze earmarks Ė at
least for now. Some industry writers take that as a sign that the next
transportation bill will contain more infrastructure funding and less pork. Iíd
like to think thatís true. But in all honesty, I think the newfound distaste
for earmarks is less about lawmakersí sudden concern with infrastructure than
about keeping congressional fingers out of the lobbying till.
2009 is just around the corner. Itís time for individual companies to get
involved. We need vocal participation from users who have no ax to grind.
Without this strong advocacy, our already stressed structure is liable to crack
even further. If that happens, all the kingís horses and all the kingís men
wonít be able to put it back together again.