For years, it seemed that no matter how much noise they made, freight interests simply couldn't get Congress's ear. As the debate raged over such pressing issues as the war, national security, health care and crime, legislators had little time for the decidedly unsexy topic of transportation infrastructure.
Bill Graves thinks that's about to change. "We used to joke that freight doesn't vote," says Graves, who is president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations. "I think freight is about to show up at the polls."
If it does, it's likely to have plenty of company. New evidence suggests that the American public, which has never hesitated to use the ballot box to voice its displeasure, may have finally lost patience with road congestion. Not to put too fine a point on it, motorists have grown tired of getting stuck in traffic. They're no longer willing to tolerate delays every time they hit the road, whether it's to commute to work, take a trip to the beach, or make a foray to the mall. That mounting frustration may prove to be something legislators can no longer ignore.
Evidence that the tide has finally turned comes in the form of survey results released by the American Automobile Association (AAA) late last year. The survey, a nationwide study named "Pockets of Pain," examined public opinion on transportation funding issues in pockets of highly congested, urban areas as well as more rural parts of the nation. As you might expect, the poll confirmed that Americans are concerned about traffic; more than 70 percent of the nearly 2,400 respondents agreed that the nation's transportation system is not keeping pace with demand. What you might not expect, however, is that those same respondents also agreed that more money is needed to maintain and improve the nation's system of roads.
That's noteworthy indeed. "In previous surveys and focus groups, we've seen more reluctance to increasing funding for transportation," said Robert L. Darbelnet, AAA's president and CEO, in a speech to the National Conference of State Legislatures' Transportation Leaders meeting in San Antonio, Texas, just days after the report was released. "Common responses used to be 'I already pay enough,' or 'Existing funds aren't invested efficiently,' or 'I don't trust my state DOT to do the right thing.' I think the strong support for more funding we find in this survey bodes well for the challenges ahead of us."
Still, it's hardly time for freight interests to break out the champagne. In the scheme of national priorities, transportation still has a long way to go. When survey respondents were asked to rank their top concerns, transportation came in a distant sixth with just 3 percent identifying it as their principal concern. Right now, transportation lags well behind health care (26 percent), national security (25 percent), education (24 percent), Social Security (12 percent), and energy independence (9 percent).
"That is a disappointing finding in our survey but not necessarily surprising. It demonstrates how much work all of us have to do to educate Americans about the importance of transportation to securing our economy and our way of life," said Darbelnet. "When the transportation system does not work, Americans feel the pain. It is vital not only for commuting to work, but for personal travel and freight mobility. It is essential for national security as well—such as evacuating people in times of natural or man-made disasters."
Darbelnet is right. There's plenty of work to be done. We need to educate both the public at large and the elected officials who represent them about the importance of a sound national transportation infrastructure to our economy and to our way of life. The road to success, we suspect, will be long and at times, bumpy. But each journey begins with a single step.