August 15, 2007 10:00 AM, EDT

Editorial: A Silver Lining in a Tragedy

This Editorial appears in the Aug. 13 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

If you could ever see a silver lining in a tragedy as disastrous as the collapse of that Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, it’s that the catastrophe brought the lamentable state of our nation’s infrastructure to the forefront of everyone’s attention.

We have been talking about America’s infrastructure needs for some time now, but usually that’s something most Americans take for granted until something drives it home in a dramatic way.

And you couldn’t ask for anything more dramatic than a major interstate highway bridge in a major city falling into the Mississippi River in the middle of rush hour.

While divers are still working in harrowing conditions to try to find if there are more victims, it’s extremely fortunate that relatively few people are known to have been killed. If some of the bridge lanes had not been closed for road work, the tragic toll might have been much higher.

Terrible and frightening as falling bridges can be, they are just a symptom of how serious this patient’s condition is.

The Interstate Highway System carries much more traffic than its developers envisioned when they launched it more than 50 years ago, while railroads and ports are straining to handle the cascade of freight arriving at ports every day and generated by our growing domestic economy.

In 2005, Congress established a pair of commissions to take a fresh look at what the nation’s transport needs are, how best to address them and how to pay for them.

One group Congress established is the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, charged with looking at the financing needs of the Highway Trust Fund and at alternative financing mechanisms.

The other group, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, is charged with looking at future surface transportation needs and ways to replace or supplement fuel taxes to meet them.

The choice of Patrick Quinn, former chairman of American Trucking Associations and co-chairman of U.S. Xpress Enterprises, to serve on that commission helps underscore the importance of trucking in our national freight transportation system.

A smoothly running freight transport system is vital to the country’s economic health, and Congress will look to the commissions it established when it rewrites basic transportation legislation in 2009.

We hope leadership will emerge to take the fresh, bold actions needed to prevent our entire national transportation system from crumbling under the ever-growing load it carries.