Question: How many people does it take to create the next highway reauthorization legislation? Answer: 100 senators and 435 congress members to write it, one president to sign it and about 1,800 lobbying groups to make sure their particular interests make it into a law expected to authorize $500 billion in spending.
That's a large pie, but given all the fingers trying to get into it, what's the chance that we'll end up with a true national transportation plan instead of the mulligan stew of local projects and earmarks we've been treated to in past reauthorization bills?
That's the question being asked by a series of investigative stories written by the Center for Public Integrity. The center is a non-profit organization created by a number of big-name institutions like the Carnegie Corp. and the Ford Foundation to take up the non-partisan investigative journalism and research that's being left behind by financially struggling traditional media. The group, which mainly publishes its reports online (www. publicintegrity.org), has launched a new transportation web site to monitor Congress' progress as it hammers out the bill that will govern the next six years of America's transportation investment. Their conclusion on whether national interest will trump those special interests? “Don't bet on it.”
Obviously, trucking is well represented among those lobbying for consideration. After all, highways, roads and bridges are where trucking conducts business, so it has a lot riding on infrastructure funding. The problem is the tunnel vision that develops with almost all special interest lobbying, which focuses attention on a single element and tends to ignore the big picture. For example, most in trucking refer to the bill as “highway reauthorization,” overlooking the fact that it really is a transportation funding mechanism.
Add the single-minded lobbying of railroads, construction interests and local governments desperate for any new jobs, and you've got the recipe that's given us all of our past reauthorization acts. The result has been the creation of “a nationwide patchwork of funded bypasses, interchanges, bridges, and rail lines with no overarching philosophy behind it,” according to the Center's latest report.
Our surface transportation network has been brought to a breaking point by politically inspired building projects that have left us with underfunded, under-maintained and overused roads. What we need is a national transportation policy.
An integral part of that policy should be a national freight plan. Trucking should play a major role in any such plan, but so should rail and intermodal if the goal is to maximize the overall efficiency of our supply chain.
Mass transit and long-distance passenger rail shouldn't be ignored either. Congestion is overwhelming our highways, and it is in everyone's best interest — trucking included — that we address the issue by providing practical alternatives to automobile travel.
Under the current lobbying model, anything that takes dollars away from a special interest's narrow range of concerns is seen as a threat. But transportation isn't a zero-sum game. It's time to acknowledge that we all lose if we continue treating transportation funding as a grab bag.
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