In August, after much delay, Congress finally passed a six-year $285 billion reauthorization of the surface transportation bill. While that sounds like an enormous sum of money, more than a few people believe it's not nearly enough. But the total amount may be less important than how that money is spent and, ultimately, whether the measure makes substantive improvements in national mobility. It appears this bill will not.
Now, I'll admit right here that I'm relying on analyses of people far more familiar with the bill than I, primarily shippers and carriers worried that crumbling highways and bridges and congested ports threaten economic growth. They consider funding contained in the bill to be insufficient to maintain the current highway network, never mind improve upon it. They charge that the highway bill was shaped more by parochial interests than a broad vision for a transportation system that will meet the nation's needs in the decades ahead.
With the country struggling with issues like war and terrorism, a record-setting deficit, and skyrocketing health care costs, transportation is not high on the national agenda—other than as a security concern. But that hasn't deterred leaders of the National Industrial Transportation League from undertaking what may prove a quixotic quest: the development of a national transportation policy. Now understand, this is not a group that would look favorably on something like socialized central planning—the group was among the most ardent advocates of deregulation over the last quarter century. But what they are suggesting is that shippers, truckers, railroads, air carriers, ship and barge lines, highway designers and builders, state and federal policy makers, and commuter and traveler organizations search for common ground about the future of our transportation system.
In broad strokes, the goals are easy enough to identify: cleaner air, less congestion, safer highways, and an efficient and productive network that contributes to economic health. But working out the details will be far, far more difficult.
John Ficker, the league's president, says that the last real effort to formulate a national policy dates back to 1992, a time when commerce was more domestic than global and intermodal transportation had yet to become ubiquitous. He believes the time to try again is now, and that shippers and carriers should lead the way. "If our voice isn't heard, then we get what we deserve," he says. He is right on both counts.