May 11, 2018



Most of us spend little time thinking about the importance of highways, rivers, oceans, airways or even pipelines to their lives. Perhaps we should. Much of life today wouldn’t be possible without those critically important channels of transportation on which pretty much everything we need, use or want in life must move. 

Transportation, and all of its many sub-categories, is the fourth-largest non-farm/non-government industry. It trails only the housing, healthcare, and food industries — and each of those, as well as both the agricultural and government sectors, would be much smaller if it weren’t for their ability to receive products and services, or workers, brought to them via the nation’s transportation arteries.

In short, transportation is essential to modern life. 

Trucks lead the way

Each year in this country alone we spend around $1.5 trillion to move an incalculable number and type of goods. That’s equal to eight percent of United States’ gross domestic product. Yet, while each mode of transportation — air, sea, river, rail, pipeline, and highway — plays a huge and critical part within that enormous whole, one mode of transportation stands apart as the largest and most important player in the delivery of the stuff of modern life to modern men and women.

Trucks — from giant 18-wheelers to box trucks to small package vans and delivery cars —combine to haul more than 10.5 billion tons of goods, more than five times the volume moved by rail.

Not only do trucks haul a huge percentage of freight from manufacturers’ shipping docks to retail stores in every neighborhood in the land, trucks also move a huge and ever-growing number of items from local or regional distribution centers to consumers’ doorsteps. Whether it’s that new car you’ll buy this year at your local dealership, or the diapers, detergent, and paper towels you’ll order online because it’s cheaper and easier than driving to your local supermarket, it’s a certainty that those items all spent time aboard a truck on their way to you.

Infrastructure remains vital but underfunded

Transportation, broadly defined, also employs nearly five million Americans, about 1.5 million of whom work directly in the trucking industry. An additional 1.6 million Americans work building cars, trucks, ships, rail cars and engines, and other transportation vehicles and equipment.

Obviously, all that tonnage of goods moving around the nation on trucks is dependent on America’s massive 4.12 million miles of public roads, and especially on the 164,000 miles of the national highway system. That includes 47,000 miles of Interstate and 117,000 miles of U.S. Highways built and supported in part by federal tax dollars.

Unfortunately, despite the importance of these roads to our economy, Congress has not spent enough over the past few decades to maintain and improve our infrastructure to the level necessary to keep up with growing demand. Spending on the NHS accounts for about 2.5 percent of the economy, compared to the 3.9 percent spent by Canada, Australia, and South Korea on their federal roads, the five percent spent by Europe on its national roads, and estimated nine to 12 percent that China spends on its roads. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the U.S. would have to spend at least $150 billion more a year on highway infrastructure through at least 2020 to catch up with the current demand for highway use.

So, while it’s wonderful to sing the praises of America’s transportation industries, it also would be wonderful and appropriate to focus more attention — and money — on the upkeep and expansion of the nation’s most important piece of infrastructure, our highways.

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