We are still in the early days of discussion over just how big the next surface transportation bill will be, what it will pay for, and how it will be funded. But it is not too early for anyone interested in how freight moves on U.S. highways to start paying close attention to the debate.
The current bill expires at the end of September, yet it seems highly unlikely that Congress will enact a comprehensive bill by that time. The Obama administration intends to ask Congress for an 18-month extension of the current law, which would give it time to develop a comprehensive transportation infrastructure strategy. Nonetheless, we can get at least some idea of what the next bill will look like from bipartisan legislation filed in June by Rep. James Oberstar and others. Oberstar is the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and thus will have enormous influence over whatever bill does emerge from Congress.
Oberstar's proposal calls for spending $500 billion over six years, including $337 billion over that time for highways. That's a big jump over current spending levels, although it's far short of what the American Society of Civil Engineers, in its latest Report Card for America's Infrastructure, says is needed. The 2009 report card gives U.S. highways a grade of D-, and the group says that we would need to spend $186 billion a year to improve the nation's highway system. As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told The New York Times Magazine recently, "The way I characterize it is America is one big pothole, and Americans are ready for their streets and roads and bridges to be fixed up."
Spending of that scale, whether it is approved now or later, will attract the attention of states, municipalities, labor unions, construction interests, businesses of all stripes, environmental and safety organizations, automotive groups, and others. It is imperative that freight have a seat at the table and a voice in the outcome. Many business groups have recognized as much. Last month, for example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce orchestrated a fly-in of executives from around the country to Washington, D.C., where they delivered a letter to Congress urging it to increase infrastructure spending and reform the allocation process. The letter said what anyone involved in moving freight—as a shipper, carrier, or receiver—already knows: "Adequate transportation infrastructure capacity and reliable and cost-effective transportation services are essential to improving economic growth, increasing productivity, and maintaining the competitiveness of American businesses across all economic sectors."
Those who own and operate distribution centers can make that argument persuasively. You just have to do so early and often. I urge you to do so today.