June 2006 | Commentary | Checking In

Self-Criticism and Shared Pain

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Jeff Shane shares our pain. Who is he and what is the cause of our shared transportation weltschmertz?

Shane is the Undersecretary for Policy at the Department of Transportation and appeared to be thinking out loud at a recent speech to National Industrial Transportation League members.

Shane was right there with us when we spent much of 2005 lamenting the delay in passing the SAFETEA-LU transportation funding bill. Although Congress did specify more than 5,000 transport projects, he was none too happy about the bill's lack of discretionary funds that would allow the DOT to adapt to our evolving transportation demands.

"It is not an understatement to suggest that we are in the midst of a freight revolution," Shane said in his speech. "Freight sector challenges call for federal leadership."

We agree. It was 50 years ago this month since the United States had any show of national transportation leadership—during the Eisenhower administration when the Interstate Highway System was built.

During World War I, Ike had to drive across the continental United States in an Army truck. Later, during World War II, he compared driving the German Autobahn to that experience—it galvanized his resolve to drive the Federal Highway Act through a hostile Congress when he later became president. The highway system has added trillions to our GDP over the intervening decades.

An estimated 75 percent of freight capacity issues are controlled by state DOTs and the private sector, according to Shane. This public/private partnership can partially remedy the federal leadership vacuum.

For example, the rail sector and port authorities are making record investments. That's good, but it does not replace a national sense of transportation purpose. Leadership has to come from the top, and it just has not for the last half century.

Shane thinks we are partially to blame for that vacuum: "The DOT and the industry have failed to communicate the urgency of freight needs to Congress or the general public," he said. Add to that the executive branch.

If this is a case of blaming the victim, let's roll with it by creating some pain of our own. If you care about this industry and its wider impact on the nation, resolve now to call your congressman, then follow up in writing. And then another call and another letter.

Your profession gives you insight into this issue that the general public does not have. If you don't resolve to make noise with some grass-roots transportation leadership, we will likely wait the next half century before we realize the economic potential squandered by this lack of long-range vision and transportation leadership.

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