For all our frustrations with the lackluster economic recovery, we haven't yet lost our faith. Experience tells us that no matter how dark the storm clouds, the sun always breaks through in the end. And so it will be with the U.S. economy. Growth will happen somehow, some way, sometime. This we know is true.
And when it does, one of the first indications will be an uptick in traffic on the nation's highways. As the economy gathers strength, there will be more freight to move. The more freight there is to move, the more trucks on the road. This we know is true.
If you've been in this business for a while, you know this has potentially disastrous implications for both public safety and the free flow of commerce. The nation's transportation infrastructure is already severely overstressed. Our highways are at or beyond capacity. Our roads and bridges are crumbling. And things will only get worse as freight volumes rise. This we know is true.
What makes the situation all the more frustrating is that we've seen it coming for some time now. For years—decades, in fact—various constituencies from the freight community have warned of the consequences of neglecting the aging U.S. infrastructure. But their warnings have gone largely unheeded. There's really nothing being discussed, proposed, debated, or done about this problem beyond what's been going on for nearly 30 years—a whole lot of nothing.
The reason? Money. Fixing our roads and bridges and building new ones will take money—piles and piles of money. So far, Congress has failed to allocate anything close to the kind of funding needed. And no one's holding out much hope, given that Congress has yet to reauthorize the program that merely maintains current levels of service. That program—known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act - A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU)—expired in February and has been surviving on a series of continuing resolutions ever since.
Truth is, Congress will likely never act on the matter unless the pressure becomes overwhelming. And there's little chance that will happen as long as the pressure's coming solely from the freight community. The measures freight interests endorse—say, proposals to expand the Interstate Highway System, to underwrite road and bridge repairs, or even to develop a national strategic freight plan—simply do not generate the interest or support of the motoring public. And without that support, they cannot gather the momentum needed to propel them through Congress.
Perhaps, then, it's time to try something new. Perhaps the time has come to stop looking at the problem from two perspectives: that of the motoring public and that of the freight community. Perhaps it's time to find common ground, identify a path that's acceptable to all, and finally get the job done, including allocating adequate funds for the task.
That common ground might be right in front of us. According to a recent survey by engineering and construction firm HNTB Corp., a sizeable number of Americans are open to the idea of using tolls to generate much-needed transportation funding. The company's latest "America Thinks" survey found that more than four out of 10 U.S. citizens would support the expansion of toll roads as a means of raising revenues. By contrast, only about 15 percent would rather pay for roadwork through higher fuel taxes, while the remainder do not want to pay for road projects at all.
So, perhaps a significant expansion in tolls, both on new and existing (albeit better-maintained) roads, is a proposal we can all unite around. It's not a new idea, but we need a common denominator if we hope to make progress. We also need both the commercial carriers and the private motorists to come together. Then, and only then, will we have Congress's ear. Then, and only then, is there any real chance this problem can be solved.