Asked late last year what 2007 might bring, Americans shared their predictions for the economy, the climate and energy prices—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 weren't overly optimistic about fuel costs either; 93 percent predicted gas prices would continue their upward march.
Things aren't so very different among members of the nation's supply chain community. Supply professionals, for example, share the general public's concern about rising fuel costs. They're 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 nation's 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 won't do us much good if the infrastructure isn't there.
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 industry's 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 approved 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—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. I'd like to think that's true. But in all honesty, I think the newfound distaste for earmarks is less about lawmakers' sudden concern with infrastructure than about keeping congressional fingers out of the lobbying till.
2009 is just around the corner. It's 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 king's horses and all the king's men won't be able to put it back together again.