Long Division

Long Division

While the rest of the country is talking about divided government, the transportation world is focused entirely on the importance of working together.

Talk of unity was all over the annual Transcomp meeting last week in Florida, where sessions and speeches were filled with calls for a singular vision for transportation. The message from podiums and in the hallways was that all modes should be setting aside differences and working together for the good of the supply chain.

Cosco Group President and CEO Wei Jiafu led the unity wave at the Florida meeting, issuing a call for unity among carriers and their customers to argue for needed investment in infrastructure. "Now is the time to change the relationship between carriers and shippers to protect the future of the supply chain," he said in his keynote address.

John Gentle, the former head of global logistics at Owens Corning and an active voice on supply chain issues, said it was up to businesses and their trade associations to end the divisiveness. "The polarization and stalemating that is going on within transportation is preventing us from taking a leadership position in the American economy," he said.

Oddly enough, there was a similar tone in Washington, where representatives of some business groups seemed to suggest that the election that shook up the political map wasn't so much an earthquake as a minor tremor, and it would all be forgotten in a new era of conciliation.

That's not likely, however, and even business leaders offer their rosy assessments with some added touches of realism. On the one hand, transportation is non-partisan. On the other, well, the president may have a veto pen.

That call for unity in the transport arena is also coursing through Washington.

In a sense, some transport leaders tell us, the election means little because the long-term issue is that the transportation industry - railroads and truckers, airports and highway builders, shippers and regulators - needs to work as one to repair the nation's transportation. The main vehicle, of course, is the highway bill, which just about everyone but Rep. Don Young of Alaska believes was a sad caricature the last time around.

The trouble is, the entire process around the federal government's investment in transportation infrastructure is broken and the election will neither help nor hurt efforts to change the politically-charged way the country chooses to spend its transportation dollars. 

The entire process is built on divisions, from the modal silos at the Department of Transportation to the way programs are swapped on Capitol Hill based on electoral maps. The big issue in the last highway bill, as one transport official lamented, wasn't where investment was needed but whether states got back their full dollar on gas tax receipts.

If shippers and carriers really are united in believing such divisions do little to help the nation's economy they should work together to come up with their own priorities, an overarching transportation agenda, a real spending plan built on the real needs of today's global supply chains.

Of course, on the second day everyone would have to agree on the taxes to pay for the plan, wouldn't they?