August 2007 | Commentary | Checking In

Hitting the Infrastructure Snooze Button

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Folks in our business didn't need the Minneapolis I-35 bridge collapse to serve as a wake-up call; we talk about maintaining infrastructure constantly.

Just one morning before the collapse, I exchanged e-mails with Doug Grane, president of Central States Trucking, who, in a recent guest editorial, wrote: "Most trucking company owners would agree that as long as taxes and fees continue to rise, earmarking those dollars specifically for infrastructure improvements is critical to their future well-being. Unfortunately, transportation funds are too often diverted by politicians eager to support other initiatives and pet projects." (Squeaky Wheel Gets the Political Oil, July 2007).

Grane recently testified before Congress about how infrastructure relates to our economic well-being. DOT estimates show the United States loses $168 billion annually from highway congestion, and the nation's trucking system in 2004 lost 243,032,000 man hours due to traffic delays.

Grane and I agreed that certain state and local governments, such as Nebraska, understand the economic and job creation impact of maintaining and expanding our transport infrastructure. But many do not.

Later, at lunch, I had a spirited discussion with some Maersk executives about the reasons government pays so little attention to transportation infrastructure.

The Maersk crew and I agreed that many federal, state, and local-level leaders seem to suffer from a special type of attention deficit disorder - their focus is one mile wide and one millimeter deep on the evening news' topic du jour.

The next day, we all watched the news coverage of the bridge collapse. Reports focused first on the personal tragedies, but soon shifted to asking, "why did it happen?" and "what do we do now?"

The cause of the collapse may have been design-related, neglect-related, or a little of both. But the question of what to do next is limited to putting rebuilding on the fast track, and trying to diagram alternative routes. Workarounds are limited.

This latest wake-up call has focused attention on the infrastructure issue. "U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and several governors ordered safety reviews for thousands of bridges, especially those similar to the steel-deck truss span that collapsed in Minneapolis," reported USA Today. "New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine went further, promising evaluations of all 6,400 local, state, and federal bridges in his state, regardless of owner."

Some politicians are apparent converts to the transport infrastructure issue. But why did we have to pay a price as high as the I-35 bridge failure to attract their attention?

I can't help but wonder if our leaders will treat this wake-up call the same way they treated past reminders. Will they hit the snooze button, resume their infrastructure somnambulism, and wake only when the next alarm sounds?

You can take action. Continually remind your representatives and local media of the importance of infrastructure. Make sure no one dozes off again.

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