Be Like Paul

It’s nearly midnight on April 18, 1775. You’re a talented, 40-year-old silversmith in colonial Boston and you learn that British troops are coming. You must ride to Concord and warn American patriots. You succeed, and forever stamp Americans as people who act decisively when faced with potentially devastating danger.

Our industry faces a threat that could bring it to its knees. We need action.

Highway congestion makes a driver’s life (and on-time record) unpredictable today. But it will make your life absolutely miserable – and severely test the resilience of American industry – in the very near future if Congress doesn’t act.

Michael Card is president of Combined Transport in Oregon, a family-owned trucking company. He recently laid out some powerful truths to the Highways and Transit subcommittee of the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. For example: “According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) the demand for freight transportation services will increase by 87 percent by 2020. The trucking industry will be asked to transport nearly 2.4 billion more tons of freight in 2013 than we carry today. This increase of 2.4 billion tons alone is greater than the volume of freight that railroads will carry in 2013.

“To accommodate this higher demand level, the number of trucks will increase over the next 12 years by 31 percent, adding 1.9 million more trucks to the road, more than 157,000 trucks each year… Overall truck vehicle miles traveled will increase by 36 percent, or 60 billion miles, by 2013… Over the past 30 years, the nation’s population has risen by 32 percent, truck registrations have risen by 45 percent, truck vehicle-miles traveled has risen by 145 percent but road mileage has only increased by 6 percent.”

The NHS, said Card, “has deteriorated to the point where nearly half of urban interstate miles are congested during peak periods.” Rush hour, he added, is now commonly most of the daytime hours.

Card said 40 percent of travel on urban NHS routes “takes place under such congested conditions that even a minor incident can cause severe traffic flow disruption and extensive queuing.” And the NHS carries 40 percent of all traffic and 75 percent of truck traffic.

Congestion costs truckers, and other road users, time and billions of dollars. It is also a major factor in highway fatalities.

Just-in-time and exactly-on-time delivery have made a major contribution to U.S. productivity. But can we keep it going? Mary Peters, FHWA Administrator says, “our surface transportation system simply does not currently have the reliability to support that level of precision, and yet our national economy is becoming increasingly dependent on it.”

Card estimates that “for every minute that a truck delivery to an automobile manufacturing plant is delayed, the plant loses around $5,000.”

What to do? The subcommittee’s hearing was linked to a planned reauthorization of the transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21) that expires next year. But new roads alone won’t stop the onrushing threat of “super-congestion.”

We must also consider other improvements, such as higher truck productivity (maybe bigger is not only better but essential), improved driver productivity (maybe hours of service regulations need reform), reliable federal funding, the elimination of bottlenecks, increasing use of new traffic management tools like detectors, cameras and communication systems, a streamlining of all pre-building reviews for new roads and increased telecommuting and carpooling.

I fear that in government today it is possible to have all the tools for a vital job, and it still doesn’t get done. Things gets bogged down and no one wades in and frees them up. In 1775, we had Paul Revere (and, come to think of it, no highway congestion). Revere knew what he had to do, he knew how long he had to do it, and he did it.

Surely Sept. 11 renewed in us the need to do America’s urgent work urgently? To those who have the power: Dramatically worse highway congestion is not inevitable a decade from now unless you do too little too slowly. Don’t sit on the horse and hesitate. Ride!

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