By Clifford F. Lynch
As we become more and more conscious of green, I suggest we don’t lose sight
of another important color: "concrete grey." One of the major supply-chain
issues facing us today is the rapidly deteriorating transportation
infrastructure. Much of the interstate highway system is over 50 years old, and
hundreds of bridges and highways are in desperate need of repair. Even in good
shape, the system is no longer capable of handling the ever-increasing traffic
level, and significant new construction is necessary.
For those who wonder just how bad it could be, consider this: According to
the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2043, the American population will reach 400 million.
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," Ruane says, "unless major steps are taken soon to add new highway and
The Department of Transportation expressed concern, and Secretary Mary Peters
raised the topic in hearings around the country, including one in Memphis.
Unfortunately, however, very little of substance came out of these sessions.
The American Trucking Association is concerned. In November 2008, it issued a
list of the trucking industry’s top 10 problems. Congestion ranked number five,
infrastructure was number seven, 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.
Voters have been concerned, as well. During the past two years, voters have
approved most of the transportation-funding-related initiatives that have
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 presidential
administration 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.
Barack Obama has expressed an interest in the problem, and has developed a
plan for the largest infrastructure investment since the 1950’s. However, he
seems to be more focused on the jobs his plan would create than on the end
result. This is very close to doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. What
we need is a national transportation plan.
President Obama’s job creation plan conjures up memories of Franklin D.
Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA
generated almost 8million jobs, and there’s probably not a county in the U.S.
that does not have a bridge, road, or park built by the WPA.
According to the Encyclopedia of American History, during its eight
years of existence, the WPA built 651,087 miles of highways and roads and
124,031 bridges. This was in addition to thousands of schools and parks. The
total value of WPA projects in 2008 dollars was an impressive $17.8 billion
The major criticism was that projects were completed that weren’t always
needed or wanted. That is a trap we must not fall into.
The time to speak up is now. We need vocal participation from individuals and
firms who have no axe to grind other than a desire for a planned and coordinated
transportation infrastructure. Without this strong advocacy, our already
stressed structure is liable to crack even further. If that happens, all the
king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t be able to put it back together