A cause whose time hasn't come

A cause whose time hasn't come

For years, we in the trade and transportation industry have experienced the reality of steadily growing volumes clashing with inadequate infrastructure and the lack of a national freight policy. We know the consequences - growing highway, rail and seaport congestion, unpredictability in logistics and rising costs unable to be offset by improvements in efficiency.

Is there anything on the horizon that might suggest a change in this paradigm? The answer is sobering.

Some policy experts believe that after years of neglect, the backlog of necessary investment, not just in transportation, but in all areas of national infrastructure - including power, water treatment, sewage, dams and levees - is so great that only a president making this a national priority can alter the status quo.

"I don't think one can anticipate that investment in operational and physical improvements to our transportation system will become a national priority until another president makes it so," said Emil Frankel, assistant secretary for policy at the Transportation Department from 2002 to 2005 and now a principal consultant at Parsons Brinkerhoff.

In other words, it doesn't matter how many highway bills get passed, or how many well-intentioned commissions study transportation policy. Real progress in creating a national transportation system won't happen unless the cause is embraced by whoever happens to be president of the United States. "That is what is missing today. There is no real commitment to national goals for investment in infrastructure," Frankel said.

The last president to make transportation a national priority was Eisenhower, who ushered in the national highway system and for whom the system is named. Eisenhower, who vividly recalled the memory of having to move his Army unit across a nation of back roads as a young Army officer, provided what has been absent for years in this area - national leadership. As long as politicians' pet projects rather than true national priorities determine where transportation dollars are spent, the system will go nowhere.

"People accepted the idea that if you lived in Connecticut, it was worth spending money in Montana to complete a national highway system," said Frankel, who was Connecticut commissioner of transportation in the early 1990s. "We need a similar principle in terms of a transportation system that is suited to the 21st century. It means being willing to spend money to improve rail-switching systems in Chicago because it will benefit you in Tennessee. It will take national leadership to get people to accept that."

That is the heart of the problem. As Bob Herbert wrote about infrastructure in the New York Times on April 5, "If there's a less sexy story floating around, I can't find it." Infrastructure, including transportation, faces a constant uphill battle competing for attention against health care, entitlement programs, education and security.

Compared to health care, a system that is clearly broken today, the nation's infrastructure also must overcome the notion in the White House that the problem hasn't quite reached a crisis stage. The roads may be aging, but they work, so attention can shift to other areas. Rolling blackouts are not a feature of American cities the way they are in developing countries. The idea that the economy is being hurt today by road congestion is still an unformed, emerging concept in the national media.

But at this rate of growth and underinvestment, there is no question that it will become a crisis - it's just a question of when - and that is what people in this industry are really saying. That is why it is frustrating to see nationally significant investments - such as the CREATE project in Chicago to untangle rail lines, and major port efficiency weaknesses in Los Angeles-Long Beach - not being addressed while money gets poured into purely regional projects such as a ring road around Bakersfield, Calif.

Infrastructure is like trade: The decisions that are in the best interest of the nation - such as expanding trade deals or investing in a rail or port project thousands of miles away - are a difficult sell at the local level. Only a president expending political capital can provide cover to Congress to approve trade deals, and only a president who gets behind unsexy priorities such as infrastructure by appealing to the greater national good can possibly get the country moving in this area.

As the 2008 presidential campaign gets under way, I will certainly perk up at any mention of infrastructure by the leading candidates. But I won't be holding my breath.