Letters to the Editor

Would you like to submit a letter to Sandy? Be concise, direct and clear with your message. Be sure you include your full name, and then e-mail it to sandy @ theasphaltpro dot com. Here’s an excellent letter from Dag Seagren of EZ Street, Miami, about funding needs:

The Future of America’s Roads: Purple Frog or Living Legacy

When we use words like preserve, protect or sustain, we inevitably think of something that is endangered. In business, those words can mean something entirely different. Generally speaking, to preserve or sustain a certain level of sales or market share we find ourselves setting the bogey higher than the lowest level we are willing to accept so we can make sure we don’t fall below that projection. Another way of looking at this is that if you’re not busy growing, you’re probably busy dying.

As Congress takes up the debate of the next transportation legislation, I believe we need to look at America’s transportation future with these two perspectives in mind. Next, commit ourselves to learn and understand the words contained in the Oberstar Transportation Bill. Finally, line this up with some good American history so we can influence our representatives as they take up the debate.

While I read the transportation bill, I posted my thoughts in the margins of the large three-ring binder I store it in. I wrote things like, “Washington power grab, anti-road, anti-state, Livability? (get definition), Comprehensive street design policy – what is this?, MPO—Metropolitan planning organization/supplants DOT? – What about DOT’s role?, Suburban – bad; Urban – good, Center for Disease Control?” And, finally, “U.S. Bicycle Route System.”

The 775 page, ~135,000 word transportation bill, like others we have seen “pass” in Congress, reads something like an allegory. The “road” as we know it plays the role of antagonist. The protagonist is big government and The Office of Livability.

But, it’s a transportation bill. Drafted by transportation folk, right? I don’t think so. One day, I thought I came across a cliff notes version of our latest transportation bill when I found a 100-page “Blueprint” for America. It was drafted by a group called Transportation For America.

Transportation For America’s co-chair is Geoff Anderson, who is President and CEO of Smart Growth America. From my understanding, Transportation For America is the main umbrella organization of the Sierra Club. While it’s hard to understand who controls what, you will be able to find out what these organizations stand for by spending a few minutes on their Web sites. After all, their language is the language of the transportation bill.

A quick tour of their Web sites reveals the various elements of their policy. One element is Social Equity, which they define with images of abandoned urban sprawl, and which you’ll find on page 201, line 116 of the Oberstar transportation bill.

Just last week [March 23], Missouri’s leading Senator Kit Bond asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for a definition of Livability. It’s a word used 35 separate times in the transportation bill. LaHood offered the following definition: “Communities where people have access to many different forms of transportation and affordable housing and the ability to really have access to all of the things that are important to them, whether it’s a grocery store, drug store access.”

The Senator responded, “I’ve got a lot of constituents for whom livability means having a decent highway. They’ve got to drive between one town and another town.”

History offers the road to answers. The 1950s and the early 1960s provided great debate about America’s roads, on both sides of the aisle. Invariably, representatives all pointed to the benefits of America’s interstate highway system. Surely if these guys were alive today, they wouldn’t be advocating a transportation bill full of federal bike trails.

On Feb. 28, 1961, President Kennedy, in a special message to Congress regarding the Federal Highway Program, said, “it is a key to the development of more modern and efficient industrial complexes—turning marginal land into attractive sites for commercial or industrial development—and to lower motor transportation costs generally.”

A year later, Kennedy commented on the role of Federal Government and transportation. His emphasis on a balance of use of transportation modes didn’t call for Washington controlling every street and sidewalk in individual states. The authors of the current transportation bill beg to differ.

On the issue of financing, President Eisenhower was in favor of a gas tax increase, but his Congress voted it down. Kennedy faced similar challenges. But both couldn’t be more square on one thing: we should only pay for what we can afford to build.

Proposals run large today for a vast new multi-modal transportation network. Few, if any, contain details as to the funding of such. At least Kennedy and Eisenhower talked about the elephant in the room. But we’re locked and loaded to throw out a $1.75 trillion baby with the bathwater in exchange for a panacea in transportation. Sure, the advocates of this bill will say they are for roads. You’ll have to make them prove it.

Practically speaking, roads drive economics. Bikes don’t.

This past weekend, I had lunch with a friend in the beer business. I asked him how roads affect him. Surprisingly, he sprang to with a story.

Federal law mandates that all beer be “dry docked” at a wholesaler’s location prior to being distributed to the customer. Once the beer hits the dock, it’s the property of the wholesaler. One such wholesaler had cited a specific example of the high percentage of broken bottles (shrink) that they have to bear the cost of because a particular road outside their warehouse is in bad shape. They’re considering re-paving the road themselves. That wholesaler is one of a dozen plus that helps to get product to some 16,000 customers throughout the state of Michigan by truck. That beer has been, is and will continue to be delivered to customers by truck. Not a train. Not a bike.

Yet a few days earlier, The Secretary of Transportation gave a press conference at the National Bike Summit thanking its attendees for being such great advocates of livable communities. He later blogged, “Today, I want to announce a sea change. People across America who value bicycling should have a voice when it comes to transportation planning. This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

Does the Secretary mean it? Don’t take my word for it. Oberstar’s bill, page 214, lines 1-6, states “The purpose of the U.S. bicycle route system program shall be to provide for the establishment and support of an interconnected, intercity network of bicycle facilities…to improve and enhance economic development.”

FHWA now becomes FHW&BRA (Federal Highway and Bike Route Administration). As an aside, they actually do deliver beer by bike in China.

The purple frog is an endangered species. I had no idea. I gather few people do.

Sadly, a similar percentage value our roads—until their usefulness is depleted. Nothing against the purple frog, but when the sun starts setting on America’s roads, we’ll feel the pain. Only those of us in the transportation industry know that then it will be too late. Today, we can do our part to keep our legacy busy growing and not dying.

Grab a copy of your transportation bill. Read it. Highlight it. Ask questions.

Educate yourself. Talk to a supplier about it.

Latch onto some of the many industry efforts to be part of this process. Call your senators. It is ultimately they who will help shape the transportation bill. And yes, while we don’t have all the answers for the questions, neither did Eisenhower or Kennedy. For practical and robust legislation to prevail, you must get involved in a serious way. Otherwise, get ready to call in the sign company to the FHWA.

Dag Seagren

On behalf of pothole.info