Lambert’s Langiappe – Novels and Transportation Policy (april/may 2011)

What does it take to tell a story? Throughout history, we have celebrated the ability of the written word to inspire or simply entertain us. Brett Battles, my wife’s cousin, just published his fourth book, “The Silenced”. Driving back from the bookstore, I reflected about the discipline it takes Brett to write his novels. While I don’t write thrillers, at the same time, I find myself constantly telling the story of infrastructure – why does it matter and what opportunities does it provide.

Recently, I was discussing how different the freight transportation story becomes based upon the audience. For example, when I talk to DOT and MPO planners, they tend to discuss freight in the context of projects and localized networks. They understand that freight is important; there will be more trucks in the future and multimodal transportation networks should be examined.  However, freight shipments, while recognized as critical, are seen as simply another user community, which must be balanced against bicycles, transit, or other passenger movements.
When I make the same discussion with various businesses, they focus on the regulations or operational needs of the transportation system, although some will discuss the longer term structural aspects of infrastructure improvements. Most believe that there is an implicit commitment that infrastructure will be maintained and developed at the regional level.  When I meet with legislators, they will discuss funding, but also the need for specific projects in their region. The wider network effects and discussions on transportation connectivity seem buried against the broader budgeting activities.
Given the very diverse nature of freight transportation, there are many different people involved in the discussion. Meetings such as the upcoming Georgia Logistics Summit or AAPA’s seminar on Communicating the Importance of Infrastructure Investment are critical in highlighting the importance of this dialogue.  But when there is a story, there is always a cost:  what did the hero give up to reach his goal? No one watches James Bond beat up a local bully in a school yard. As with transportation, we get the same discussion – what is the cost of the story? Generally, the funding issue seems to be the biggest barrier to some resolution, not only regarding the reauthorization of the various transportation bill but also at the state and local level.
Unlike Brett’s novel, we can’t seem to agree on what the story line is regarding transportation’s linkage to economic growth, jobs, and finally funding in a nice, coherent manner.  But the dialogue is critical if we hope to find ways to enhance America’s competitiveness in global markets.

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