By Rod Nofziger
OOIDA DIRECTOR OF GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS
There is a very real chance that we will look back at the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis as a historic turning point for transportation policy in the United States.
The collapse of that bridge was obviously a tragedy of significant proportions and our nation shares in the sorrow for those individuals who perished or were injured in Minneapolis.
One glimmer of hope that may come out of that tragedy is that it may have finally awakened the American public and their elected representatives to the concerns that truckers and others in the transportation community have been talking about for many years.
Despite its role as the backbone of our economy, the status and future of our national highway infrastructure system has consistently taken a backseat to other major issues.
Truckers, road builders and lawmakers on transportation committees have talked endlessly about the condition of our nation’s transportation infrastructure, the needs for additional construction and maintenance, and the status of the federal Highway Trust Fund.
However, before the collapse of the I-35 bridge, the concerns that most Americans had with the state of our nation’s infrastructure were ones caused by personal inconvenience – potholes on local highways, timely routes to and from work, and intermittent roadwork that added an extra hassle to their getting around town.
Now, everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Oprah and USA Today to Time Magazine are discussing the conditions of our bridges and roads. They are citing the same alarming statistics that transportation leaders such as Reps. James Oberstar, D-MN, and Jimmy Duncan, R-TN, pointed to during the last big highway bill debates a few years ago.
With that tremendous media attention, political leaders across the nation have begun to pay close attention to existing transportation policies as well as how effectively we are funding and maintaining our highways. There are some political undercurrents that should help to raise the priority that our country and our decision-makers place on our transportation infrastructure.
First is the hotly contested presidential race. Candidates are falling over themselves to show American voters that they are in touch with the public’s concerns and that they have the answers to lead us to a brighter and better future.
All of the media attention in the wake of the bridge collapse has caused several candidates to insert statements about our highways and bridges into their campaign speeches. Also, the 2008 Republican presidential convention will be in Minneapolis next September, which is sure to result in both political parties making efforts to show the nation that they have not forgotten about the tragedy which occurred in that city.
Another factor will be the pending reauthorization of the big highway funding bill that is set to expire in 2009. That legislation not only authorizes billions of dollars for federal highway construction, maintenance and safety programs, it also sets in place all of the underlying transportation policies and priorities for our government.
Congressional committees are scheduled to have several hearings related to the highway bill next year, but some members have already started heated discussions and debates on future transportation policies.
The attention that the public and political leaders will be focusing on where we get funding for our highway system, how we spend that money and where we place our future transportation priorities will create new opportunities, but it will also create new challenges for the trucking community.
Editor’s note: Be sure to read “Highway robbery” on Page 30 of this issue. Staff Writer Reed Black brings to print some startling facts on Highway Trust Fund money as researched by OOIDA’s Government Affairs Specialist Rene Hill.