Infrastructure not keeping pace with economy

 Christian Steinbreacher, The Daily Record Newswire

Recently there have been several eye-catching headlines related to the movement of raw materials and finished goods. One says that ships are waiting 10 to 15 days at Southern California ports to unload due to a lack of trucks and the inability to move containers out of port areas. Another says that it is taking about 10 days to get a freight car to ship grain from this year’s harvest to ports for export.

It appears that the nation’s infrastructure is creaking under this business expansion. This is despite the fact that at least one of the major Class I railroads is owned by a pretty savvy business leader.

The growth of infrastructure in this country has not kept pace with its economic expansion. And not only the physical infrastructure, but the human capital as well. The average truck driver is 55. The just-in-time inventory business model that many major corporations have adopted requires a fluid and efficient mechanism to move raw materials to manufacturing plants. Then the imported finished products must be moved to distribution centers for eventual sale to customers.

While everyone appears to bemoan the insufficient infrastructure, there has also been a distinct lack of enthusiasm to raise funds for infrastructure. This policy discussion has been ongoing at the national level for some time. It may be that the public financing of infrastructure has reached a new methodology: that of a biennial infusion of funding. This of course presupposes that the federal government, or for that matter government in general, is responsible for infrastructure development.

There may be other solutions, however. One suggests that business concludes that infrastructure financing through government is too bureaucratic and the results not sufficient to support the manufacturing models currently in place. Will industry step up and privately finance infrastructure that allows the current business model to continue?

Another suggests a readjustment of the current business model. This model is based on the unfettered global movement of raw materials to any place in the world for the production of final goods that are then subsequently moved any place in the world for eventual sale to customers. This back-and-forth model may no longer be viable in the realities of today’s infrastructure. Those industries able to remove one of the two transportation lanes may find themselves more competitive. Manufacturing enterprises may need to be located closer to their raw materials, or closer to their customers.

Although the nation’s population is continuing to grow, only a fixed amount of space is available for transportation infrastructure. Efficiencies in traffic management may resolve some bottlenecks, but the unbridled offshoring of this country’s manufacturing has perhaps reached its zenith.

There is evidence of manufacturing returning. The panacea of low-priced offshore production is in some cases no longer as profitable as when it was first conceived. All of this suggests that the next generation may see a need for skill sets in engineering, manufacturing and skilled labor.

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Christian Steinbrecher is president of Columbia River Port Engineers Inc. and the immediate past president of the Oregon Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He is the editor of ASCE Oregon’s Report Card on Oregon’s Infrastructure. Contact him at cfs@carpengrs@.com.

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