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Think Grey

By Clifford F. Lynch

Hub, Winter 2009

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 transit capacity."

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 dollars.

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 again.

Think grey!

 

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