We’ve Waited Far, Far Too Long

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A Wake Up Call For The Road Bill And Congress.

By Brian Barlow

The stats say it all – since 2009 there have been 34 very short-term extensions to the Highway Trust Fund and the Federal Gas Tax has remained stagnant for the past 18 years. In the meantime, American roads and bridges continue to crumble as traffic has significantly increased and road repair budgets remain absurdly inadequate. Just driving over the bridges and skyways leading into Manhattan is a perfect example. You can easily see more rusted steel support beams than the ancient concrete that originally encased them. Some physically shake as you travel over them.

Here’s my point. The U.S. needs a six-year Road Bill and a raise in the Federal Gas Tax. We all know it. In general, America knows it. As an industry, we have collectively spent untold millions of dollars ratcheting up our fundraising, lobbying efforts, and educating and pleading Congress for it. In my personal opinion as one who lives this industry, we have essentially achieved little more than professional lip service.

Now, the new idea gaining support in Congress seems to be to push it off and let the states handle it. In many cases, I agree with regards to many local roads, but not our incredible interstate highway system that has been so critical to our country’s expansion and maintaining our global economic leadership. I also tend to disagree with many of our major commuter routes in densely populated areas as the user fees are becoming so rich that many truckers and motorists are opting for side roads that can neither handle the increased traffic or the heavy loads. As a result, these roads are failing as well.

Here are just a few examples.

  1. Taking any of the toll roads into and around the Chicago area and then across the state can now cost upwards of $40.00 or more by car and there are toll stops every few miles around Chicago and every 30 miles on I-90. Even though you might enter I-90 at the second or the last entry point before a toll, you still pay the full 30-mile fare of $3.50 per car.
  2. Once free, to commute the 18 miles back and forth from Denver to Boulder, Colo., is now $18.00 per day or $360.00 per month. It’s even more if you drive in the new third “limited” lane. Several local employers are now being asked to pay that cost or risk possibly losing some of their commuting employees who can’t find housing or afford to live in Boulder.
  3. Once hailed as innovative, Interstate 80 privatization in Indiana has failed as the consortium who purchased the lease has gone bankrupt, despite significantly increasing the fees. In addition, it is costing both the state and affected counties a fortune to rebuild local two-lane highway U.S.-20, which truckers continue to use as a way to avoid the significant tolls on I-80.

As a member of the community of construction-related contractors, material suppliers, manufacturers, dealers and advocates, I say we have given Washington our best shot with our grassroots promotion and ever-increasing lobbying efforts. The fact remains that Congress still needs to do its job whether we continue this approach or not.

So allow me to share one new concept, and in doing so, I hope it will spawn many more ideas as we come to realize that there are alternatives to our current focused approach on influencing Congress.

Our industry builds things … amazing things given the complexity and ingenuity required. Drive or fly anywhere and you can see the results of our work, including the outstanding U.S. Capital Building where Congress reports to work.

So let’s say we take even just a few years off from handing over our hard-earned money to Washington and apply that same money to actually re-build or build great new bridges and roads. We can even start with a few pilot projects. After all, it took us years to develop and expand our industry lobbying level to what it is today. We have certainly proven we can be both patient and persistent as well.

To be clear, this idea is not an industry donation program. The entire cost of the construction process from planning to engineering to construction on each project would come directly from the diverted millions of dollars we currently spend now in Washington. With an election looming, the industry can tap into and join the masses that are obviously seriously frustrated and fed up with the lack of action today by Congress on numerous fronts.

As with everything these days, we would then advertise and promote the various industry groups involved on each project directly on the project with signage large enough so there is no question who contributed. We can even use neon signs if that works. If nothing else, we might accomplish at least three actions:

  1. We create our own work, and the states will appreciate us even if Washington doesn’t.
  2. We personally show America what we do as an industry and the impact we have on their lives. Perhaps it would also help stave off more angry motorists taking their frustrations out on our construction crews as they did recently in West Virginia.
  3. We actually might wake up Congress and/or entice other industries to follow suit. Who knows – it may even someday lead back to the part-time position members once had.

All of that said, and disregarding our own personal political views, I believe many of us in the industry are starting to speak up and agree that the current status quo will just lead to more of what we have in Washington – action paralysis. Let’s expand our proactive dialog and generate ideas that could shift our future for the betterment of the country, the people and our industry.

Brian Barlow is a 25-year industry veteran with multiple small business ventures within the construction industry and an active participant in several industry associations groups and events worldwide.

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