September brings football, school buses, and a burst of activity on Capitol Hill as Congress gets back into session. This year, as always, lawmakers returned to Washington after Labor Day and immediately got down to the work of making laws, launching partisan investigations, spending our tax dollars, and, of course, holding hearings.
One of those hearings focused on a topic of consuming interest to logistics and supply chain professionals: structurally deficient U.S. bridges. As it happened, the session was convened by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee and, by coincidence, the representative for the 8th district in Minnesota, the state where the I-35W bridge collapsed on Aug. 1.
Oberstar has proposed a measure that would provide dedicated funding to states to repair, rehabilitate, and replace structurally deficient bridges on the National Highway System (a 162,000-mile network of interstate and other highways that carry 75 percent of the nation's heavy-truck traffic). His proposal, known as the National Highway System Bridge Reconstruction Initiative, has already won the enthusiastic endorsement of a number of highway-user and special interest groups, several of which—like the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, the National Asphalt Pavement Association, and the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association—stand to benefit directly from the spending attached to the initiative.
Still, Oberstar's proposal is hardly pork. The problem of crumbling bridges is all too real. The Department of Transportation has identified nearly 74,000 bridges in the United States as structurally deficient, meaning they need significant maintenance, rehabilitation, or replacement. Clearly, the bridge repairs Oberstar seeks need to be done.
Though it has merit, the proposal is also far too limited. Sadly, the nation's infrastructure woes go far beyond the bridges on our interstate highways. Our aging roads are creaking under the strain of ever-increasing traffic volumes. We have logjams at our seaports. Our airports struggle each day with an antiquated air-traffic control system. We have what's been described as a third-rate rail network whose capacity falls well short of demand. In light of that, fixing the bridges alone would be like applying a Band-Aid to a patient in imminent danger of multi-organ system failure.
Fortunately, there's someone on the House Transportation Committee who agrees. The committee's ranking minority member, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), made that clear during the September hearing. He pointed out that however well intentioned, Oberstar's plan falls short of the mark. "We need to develop a solution that is broader than just bridges," he said. Developing a bill that addresses just one part of the problem, he added, is "like owning an 80- year-old house that has serious problems with the plumbing, the heating, the foundation, and a leaking roof, and saying you're going to fix the driveway."
What Mica has called for instead is a comprehensive national transportation strategy. "We need a true vision for the expansion of our nation's transportation networks for future generations," he said. "We have to stop thinking of transportation as a stove-piped patchwork of systems and develop a national strategic transportation plan to address the key transportation issues of today and tomorrow."
If that sounds familiar, it's because that's precisely what industry groups have argued for years. Time and again, leaders from groups like the National Industrial Transportation League have urged colleagues to rally around the cause of a broad-based national transportation policy. But even the fiercest advocates have acknowledged the long odds of getting lawmakers interested in the plan.
The tragedy of Aug. 1 in Minneapolis changed all that. The bridge collapse has turned the nation's attention to the condition of its roads and bridges, and prompted lawmakers to reconsider their spending priorities. Those are steps in the right direction. Now, the challenge will be to make them see that it's not enough to repave the driveway; it's time to rebuild the house.