Some years ago, traveling from O'Hare airport into downtown Chicago, I noticed a flashing sign that warned of "Congestion through Ohio." The sign referred to the Ohio Street exit off the highway. But with the heavy burden placed on U.S. roads, it was easy to imagine bumper-to-bumper traffic past Cleveland.
The state of U.S. roads, airports, ports, and railways recently captured the attention of The Economist magazine, the British-based newsweekly. In the issue dated April 30-May 6, it devoted three pages to looking at failures to maintain current infrastructure or prepare for growth largely because of a widening political divide both in Washington and in state capitols.
"America, despite its wealth and strength, often seems to be falling apart," the story laments. The writer admits to being puzzled by the nation's inability to tackle infrastructure development, given the long history of public investment and support of massive public works projects from the earliest days of the republic.
While the infrastructure debate may seem to have little bearing on the day-to-day business lives of DC Velocity readers, we report on it regularly for what we consider a compelling reason. Our economic health is deeply dependent on the health of our highways, railroads, waterways, ports, and airports. Professionals charged with moving goods around the nation or around the world likely understand that better than anyone.
But I fear our current political condition makes agreeing on constructive solutions all but impossible. Too many members of Congress sneer at the word "investment" when discussing infrastructure spending. Highway trust fund revenues have dwindled to the point where they're no longer sufficient to support even current, inadequate, levels of spending, yet any suggestion for raising revenue through higher fuel taxes, congestion funding, or other forms of user fees is doomed at the outset. Even those who support greater spending and higher user fees often bring a narrow focus to the table that undermines broad-based holistic thinking about infrastructure.
"No industrialized nation in the world is doing less than the United States," James Oberstar, former chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told NASSTRAC members at their annual conference in Orlando, Fla., in April.
The Economist piece concludes, darkly, that if partisanship continues to spread on these issues, "then the American economy risks grinding to a standstill." I'm not persuaded the situation is that dire, at least not yet. But it is hard to foresee in the present environment how we can make much progress.