Thursday, April 08, 2010


How to maintain what we now have and build the new infrastructure that is needed to keep us competitive and productive, continues to be a huge problem in our country and this article from National Affairs looks at it from a efficiency perspective and finds some daylight.

An excerpt.

“Just after 6 p.m. on August 1, 2007 — at the heart of the evening rush hour — a portion of the busy I-35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring 145. The tragedy was quickly held up in the press as a symbol of America's declining transportation infrastructure, and members of Congress, state and local politicians, and various activists and experts were soon demanding a new wave of investment in our roads and bridges.

“But these critics had drawn all the wrong lessons from the bridge's collapse. As it turns out, there was no broad policy failure to blame for the tragedy: The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the collapse was caused by a combination of a design flaw, extra concrete added to the road surface without regard for the bridge's design specifications, and the excess weight of construction materials stored on the bridge at the time of its demise. The national data, too, make it clear that America's bridges are not increasingly unsafe: In fact, the Federal Highway Administration's bridge-condition database lists fewer bridges in the National Highway System as being "deficient" today than it did in 1995 or 2000 — even as more bridges have been built.

“This same pattern plays out across much of our transportation infrastructure. As Katherine Siggerud, the managing director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office, told the National Journal in 2008: "[T]he physical condition has not noticeably deteriorated in the past two decades. The condition of the most traveled roads and bridges in the United States, the interstates and the national highways, improved in quality."

“The challenge confronting America's transportation infrastructure is not a matter of falling bridges and decaying roads. Rather, our transportation sector suffers from a growing lack of efficiency — in terms of how we allocate money, as well as how we manage capacity and supply. We spend many billions of taxpayer dollars on our transportation infrastructure each year, and we possess a great deal of capacity — but the wasteful use of both costs the country enormously, in time and in money. Our transportation system does cry out for reform, though not in the form of simple cash infusions from Washington. Instead, policymakers need to grasp what our transportation problem actually is — and what solutions will get America moving…..

“But the most dramatic display of the problem — and, perhaps, of the path to a solution as well — actually involved the nation's seaports. In 2004, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two largest in the United States, experienced a near-meltdown. With the American economy enjoying a period of strong growth, demand for the facilities far outpaced their ability to handle arriving cargo. The result was a system collapse: In the peak season for cargo transport (late summer and fall), massive container ships carrying valuable cargo sat idling off the California coast for a week or longer. Others had to be diverted to less congested locations at an enormous cost to all involved. In its community newsletter, the Port of Long Beach even likened the sight of "dozens of vessels waiting for open berths at the ports" to scenes from the Normandy invasion of World War II.

“The severity of the congestion, and the high costs it exacted, provided an impetus for real reform. And so 2005 brought one of the most important transportation-policy breakthroughs of the last 50 years: The management of the two ports, major shippers, labor organizations, and other interested parties agreed to experiment with differential pricing. Under the agreement, shippers would be charged differently for moving cargo during peak and off-peak hours; a so-called "Traffic Mitigation Fee" was instituted for the first time on July 23, 2005, in advance of peak shipping season. Cargo movements between 3 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays carried an extra fee of $40 per standard-sized container, while shippers were charged no additional fee for moving cargo during off-peak hours.

“The results were astonishing. Within two months, the program had achieved the target it had hoped to reach in two years. Between 30 and 35% of shipping traffic was shifted to off-peak periods. And it quickly became clear that shippers and carriers who used the port facilities were far more sensitive to pricing — and far more willing to adjust longstanding practices — than anyone had anticipated.”