For many years now, shippers, carriers, and distributors—essentially anyone engaged in the act of moving goods through complex supply chains—have attempted to get the attention of policy makers on what they considered one of the great issues affecting national competitiveness. That is the state of the nation's infrastructure.
They have been joined in their call to fix and expand the nation's highways, bridges, intermodal connectors, etc. by highway engineers and others who could see that the infrastructure simply was not keeping up with economic growth. That maintenance was falling way behind. That if we didn't do something about it soon, given the long lead times to plan and execute projects, the nation's economic health would suffer. Much economic growth in the last two decades has been enabled by the development of efficient supply chains. Access to reliable physical infrastructure has been crucial to that development.
In response to all that, policy makers have done little. Oh, they battle over who gets what when highway and other spending bills come up. A bridge collapse in Minnesota briefly draws the attention of Congress and the popular media. But it's not the kind of issue that usually gains a lot of traction. The old saw that freight doesn't vote has some truth to it. And you can't entirely blame elected representatives who face a plethora of difficult issues—like war and recession—for paying scant attention to roads, railroads, and ports.
But concern has now deepened to the point where even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, most noted for its "just say no" stand on most government programs and spending, has joined the battle with its Let's Rebuild America initiative. As the chamber wrote in one document, "Our nation simply cannot reignite and sustain economic growth with an infrastructure that is breaking down."
Oh yes, that gets back to my opening question. Who knew? Who knew that all it would take to bring infrastructure development into sharp focus was an economic collapse of historic proportions?
But it has done the trick. Even before the election, then-candidate Barack Obama talked about the importance of infrastructure investment. Since the economy fell off a cliff, he has made infrastructure investment—and the jobs it would create—a centerpiece of his plan for recovery.
Obama's proposal has its foes, some for ideological reasons, others who argue that by the time such a program gets started, it is likely an economic recovery will be well under way. But now that we have the attention of the president and Congress, it's a good time to tell anew the story we've been telling for years: This investment matters now and will for a long time to come.