(Nov. 17) KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The need for new and better roads was a hot topic at the annual North America Works conference Nov. 5-7.

Trade and logistics leaders from the U.S., Canada and Mexico gathered to discuss the state of the economic system and its effect on trade, transportation, jobs and global initiatives.

The timing of the presidential election paved the way for a Nov. 7 workshop titled “An Agenda for the New Administration.” Although transportation of produce was not specifically discussed, the issues for the entire transportation industry in North America inherently affect all freight.

“This is the first time in a presidential campaign I can remember infrastructure as being talked about as a stimulus,” said keynote speaker Pat Quinn, co-chairman of U.S. Xpress Enterprises Inc., a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based trucking company. “We must face the reality that the current system is near the end of its lifecycle. We must look at solutions that are environmentally safe and minimize the use and waste of dwindling energy sources.”

Quinn said traffic bottlenecks in metropolitan areas resulted in lost time, fuel and money while trucks idle in heavy traffic, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. According to a 2007 report from the institute, gridlock of all vehicles in major urban areas results in “a $78 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy in the form of 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel.”

Truck traffic will continue to grow, up 29% by 2018, Quinn said.

“We’ve been asleep,” he said. “We have not had a national highway program. The last three highway bills have become pork barrel types of things.”

Quinn said at the current pace, all major cities will be gridlocked, with the East Coast experiencing the worst.

“International trade is up and will continue to go up,” he said. “That will require better ports, better infrastructure of ports and a conceptual federal truck network.”

Jesus Rodriguez, who specializes in trade issues with Canada in Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mexico City, said North America needs to be work together as one region in order to compete in a global economy.

“We have to be very generous with the exchange of ideas and exchange of innovation,” Rodriguez said. “Most of the infrastructure is already obsolete. We need to update it.”

Border crossing issues

Rodriguez said one priority is moving trucks more quickly across the Mexico-U.S. border. Trucks often spend several hours waiting to cross into the U.S. from Mexico.

Ron Lemieux, minister of transportation for the Manitoba Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, Winnipeg, offered the Canadian piece of the puzzle. He called the U.S. “Canada’s best friend,” and said all exports to the U.S. grew 48% from 1998 to 2006. The value of all exports from Canada to the U.S. in 2007 was $8 billion, he said.

Total fruit and vegetable exports from Canada to the U.S. totaled almost $1.6 billion in 2007, up from about $1.2 billion in 2006, said Dave Shaw, marketing coordinator for the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, Ottawa.

Lemieux said he thinks both the trucking industry and the general population are ready to see a change in infrastructure.

With the Canadian taxation system, he said, roads are funded 90% by the provinces, with the remainder coming from fuel taxes.

“Manitobans, as long as they know the money they’re taxed is going to roads and infrastructure, they get it,” he said. “It’s not a cost, it’s an investment in our future and we need to address it before it catches up with us and becomes a huge problem.”

Rick Van Schoik, director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, Tempe, said efforts being made to fix the problem include improvement of the north-south continental transportation infrastructure and the formation of tri-national customs teams.

“We have got to get together and develop transportation plans,” he said. “We need to study congestion maps internationally and find out where bottlenecks truly are.”

The panelists seemed to agree that reopening the North American Free Trade Agreement Treaty was not the answer.

“It would be opening a Pandora’s box,” Rodriguez said.

Obama’s infrastructure plans

President-elect Barack Obama identifies several transportation issues on his Web site, www.barackobama.com: “… too many of our nation’s railways, highways, bridges, airports and neighborhood streets are slowly decaying due to lack of investment and strategic long-term planning. Barack Obama believes that America’s long-term competitiveness depends on the stability of our critical infrastructure.”

Obama’s plan calls for $60 billion of federal money over 10 years to provide financing to infrastructure projects across the nation. Those projects would be expected to create more than 2 million jobs and stimulate $35 billion per year in economic activity.