On Record: What about the next 50 years?

On Thursday, June 29th, glasses will be raised in Washington, D.C., to toast the 50-year-old interstate system.* This milestone calls for three things:

Reflection: My first encounter with an interstate was in the third grade on a family trip from Waterloo, Iowa, to Kansas City, Missouri. We weaved from existing two-lane roads to just-completed interstate segments and then back to the two-lanes. I don’t know if the state highway departments planned it this way, but such on-again, off-again travel contrasted with what was to come – and what was to come seemed heavenly.

Mired in stop-and-go rush hour traffic in our cities, it’s sometimes hard to remember what an incredible accomplishment the interstate system is. Dan McNichol, author of “The Roads That Built America,” calls the system the largest earthmoving project ever, with contractors moving about 42 billion cubic yards of earth. McNichols says the system, which is now nearly complete, has used enough concrete to build a wall 9 feet thick and 50 feet high around the world.

Realization: Many of today’s roadway problems exist because interstates have worked too well. The foundation-level cracks seen are the result of congestion, band-aid financing and plain old neglect. And the latest transportation bill, the horribly named Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Act – A Legacy for Users, was disappointing. While no one gets what they want on Capitol Hill, a pendulum move toward the middle would be welcome.

It’s not like we can’t document the need for additional highway dollars. One such example is the November 2005 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce National Foundation that concluded there’s a $23 billion annual shortfall between what the feds are currently spending and what’s needed just to maintain current highway conditions. And if we really wanted to do things right and actually improve the system, it would take an additional $48 billion a year on top of current spending.

Organization: All of this is why forces started gathering last year to make sure we get a better transportation bill in 2009. While clearly exhausted from the last turn, members of various industry organizations know they have a clear mission: to create a persuasive funding proposal that’s still recognizable after it gets through the congressional meat grinder.

Throughout 2004 and 2005, this industry had to concentrate on getting the 2003 highway bill reauthorized. Now it’s time to do it all over again – all while combating bats-in-the-belfry proposals to spend highway funds on Katrina rebuilding and easing fuel costs.

The effort is worth it, however, and kudos to those who endure endless committee meetings and all sizes of frustrations just to make sure construction’s voice is in the mix. Because no one wants a repeat of the last go around.

* The American Road & Transportation Builders’ “50th Anniversary of the Interstate System” event will be held from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. June 29 at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center.