Paving the way for improved productivity

Eastbound on Interstate 10. Sunday afternoon. Rural area, maybe 100 miles from Houston. Plenty of sunshine. Perfect driving conditions, except for the large number of vehicles on the road traveling together through the middle of nowhere.

Suddenly the traffic comes to a complete stop. Wreck up ahead? No, just two eastbound lanes full of cars and trucks. Motorists ride their brakes for the next 40 miles until they reach the spot where the highway goes from two lanes to three.

Those who drive this route regularly have come to expect this. Interstate 10, built atop and parallel to U S Highway 90, was a major improvement in mobility and safety when it opened almost 50 years ago. But it no longer can keep up with the today's volume of traffic. With three lanes, traffic flows smoothly. Squeeze those cars into two lanes, and things come to a halt.

There is nothing unique about this stretch of roadway. You probably know a similar one not too far from where you live.

If the definition of inflation is too many dollars chasing too few goods, the definition of congestion has to be too many cars chasing too many cars in too few lanes. To a great extent, traffic congestion is not just an urban problem anymore. It is national in scope. We have a lot of folks going places, and we have a lot of motor vehicles taking us there.

Congestion is a key concern to those involved with commercial trucks and trailers. Roadways, of course, are the arteries of our industry. They make it possible to get the components and raw materials required to produce commercial vehicles.

Good roads also are vital to the people who operate — and buy — commercial vehicles. Not surprisingly, highways are important to the members of the American Trucking Associations. ATA has a powerful presentation that tracks highway congestion over time. The presentation features a map of America, with congested highways shown in red.

What started decades ago with some congestion around major cities now has spread along the highways that connect major cities. It's like an electrocardiogram of America, and the patient is in trouble. If our nation's highways were held to the same standard as our circulatory system, they would have undergone bypass surgery years ago.

For the past three years, Congress has bickered over a new highway bill. While there has been a lot of talk about new legislation, no bill has been approved — until now. At the end of June, Congress approved a $105-billion “highway bill.”

At least we thought it was a highway bill until President Obama praised the legislation he just signed into law. “First of all,” he said, “it will keep thousands of construction workers on the job.”

That's the most important thing? Not the highways themselves? Does that make it more of a jobs bill than a highway bill?

“Second,” the president continued, “this bill will keep interest rates on federal student loans from doubling.”

What does interest on student loans have to do with highways? Maybe it's an education bill instead. But, no, there's more.

The roll-your-own cigarettes industry claims the “highway bill” will put them out of business by raising the taxes they pay on tobacco.

At the risk of being redundant, what was in the highway bill that actually pertained to highways? Apparently enough for the ATA to congratulate Congress and Obama for getting it passed. ATA President Bill Graves was happy to see that the law includes a requirement for electronic recording devices, a study of truck crashworthiness, the creation of a drug and alcohol testing clearinghouse, and other safety-related causes. These were concepts that ATA pushed to get into the bill. All seem like commendable concepts, and we are sure they will make our inadequate road system safer for all of us.

But what about highways? Is there anything in the bill that will enable highway construction crews to put more concrete on the ground? Those of us who live outside the Beltway tend to think in simple terms like that.

The highway part of the bill is a little bit of a problem, Graves admitted. Amid all the good stuff in this bill, he announced, the measure “fails to deliver adequate funding to improve our nation's infrastructure network.”

Ultimately, something needs to be done to address the way highways presently are funded — with a tax on gasoline and diesel fuel. This system worked great when Ike was president, but it is inadequate today when vehicles squeeze more miles out of the fuel they burn and alternative fuels can bypass the tax entirely.

But at least Congress made a little progress this summer. And sometimes a little progress — like adding one extra lane — can make a big difference in how easily trucks and trailers can get around.

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