Spanning the Gap between Cost and Capacity


April 1, 2008

Spanning the Gap between Cost and Capacity

As the reauthorization of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) approaches, members of the aggregates industry, the broader transportation industry, and the general public should look to the past to better prepare for the future. That was a key sentiment shared during a presentation made by Jack L. Schenendorf during the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association’s annual meeting held March 10-13 in Las Vegas. Schenendorf serves as vice chairman of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission, established by SAFETEA-LU to study the future of surface transportation programs and financing.

“We owe our parents and grandparents a debt of gratitude for building the National Highway System,” he told attendees. “That system is aging. It isn’t up to doing what we need it to do for the next 50 years.” Diametrically opposed are the issues of cost and capacity. For example, Schenendorf noted that when the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was built during the 1960s, it cost $14 million. During its recent replacement, the cost climbed to $2.4 billion.

Rather than talking opening and honestly about the growing problem of the nation’s infrastructure needs, the very magnitude of the cost has key personnel scared to speak up. However, ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. In fact, it’s getting worse. Throughout the next 50 years, the U.S. population will grow by an estimated 150 million people. “Our system can’t meet our needs now,” Schenendorf explained. “How is it going to handle the increase in the number of people traveling on it in 50 years?”

To underscore the point, he discussed the Port of Seattle, which is currently among the largest ports in the United States. To meet forecasted capacity, a similarly sized port would need to be built each and every year for the foreseeable future.

Throughout his presentation, Schenendorf outlined the following four key findings by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission.

  • Infrastructure investment must increase dramatically. He predicted that a total of $227 billion — in public and private spending — needs to be spent each year to meet capacity needs. Current spending is approximately $87 billion per year.

  • The federal government needs to continue to be a full partner in infrastructure investment and must provide its fair share of resources. It is a national transportation system and should not be delegated solely to state, local, and private leadership.

  • The federal program must be transformed. Future efforts should mirror those of the 1950s when transportation funding outlined a mission and created a sense of purpose that the public could rally around.

  • The public must be educated about the value of infrastructure investment so it will support it.

Every level of government must step up to this effort, Schenendorf warned. Success will require making infrastructure investment a national priority; a factor already recognized in nations such as India and China.

“We have to have a wake-up call in the United States to create the sense of urgency that other countries already recognize,” he said. “If we’re going to remain the economic force that we are today, we need to have an effort comparable to that of the 1950s.”

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