No matter how technologically advanced our economy becomes, it won’t make a difference if we can’t get our goods to the marketplace. The dire needs of the transportation industry in the U.S. was discussed at the “Infrastructure—A Path to Prosperity” conference sponsored by Terex held yesterday at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY.

“We are confronted with a crisis of capacity in our transportation systems,” said U.S. Representative James Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Oberstar stressed that because 84% of our commodities are transported over highways, the roads need to be clear for goods to reach their destination. “General Mills reported it loses $2 million for each mile per hour their trucks travel below the speed limit,” he said. “For UPS, it’s $40 million. Delay is costing us.”

“We are congested. There were 42 billion hours of travel delay in 2007, and 2.9 million more gallons of gas were used than if we weren’t congested,” Oberstar said. “This is an investment we have to make if we’re going to be competitive.” He also mentioned Dept. of Transportation statistics that say “for every $1 billion we spend on infrastructure, 47,000 jobs are created, jobs that aren’t outsourced.”

Earlier in the day, Susan Eisenhower, president of the Eisenhower Group and granddaughter of the late President, spoke about how infrastructure is usually not spoken of as a national security issue, when in fact the two issues are intertwined. She also suggested the need for a national commission on infrastructure.

Eisenhower spoke of her grandfather’s contribution to the Interstate Highway system, which she said needs an estimated $1.6 trillion over the next five years to adequately fix infrastructure problems. However, she stressed that what we need most of all is ideas for the future.

“The more ideas we have on the table, the better. What we have in Washington today is a serious public policy problem,” said Eisenhower. “We have all these issued ‘siloed’ separately, when they’re all interconnected.”

Eisenhower mentioned how preparation for infrastructure disasters is a pivotal step in national security. “What happened in August 2006 [The Minnesota bridge collapse] is still happening around the country, although [less deadly collapses] aren’t getting as much attention. We have some very big challenges ahead,” she said.

Oberstar said that even though truck traffic has doubled, highway capacity has increased only .6%, with freight increasing at a rate of 3% a year. He added that estimates say 40% of all roadways will hit capacity in the next 15 years.

He also noted the massive improvements China has made in its transportation systems, stating that the drive from Beijing to Hong Kong has been cut from 55 hours to 25 hours, while Beijing to Shanghai, over 800 miles long, has gone from 31 hours to 14 hours by car and now can be traveled in only four hours on the passenger rail system. He added that in Europe, the trip from Brussels to Paris is possible in 80 minutes on high-speed rail, leaving every three minutes.

“Our investment in infrastructure has been .65% of our GDP,” Oberstar said. “China is spending 2.5% of their GDP. They are investing in their future. If they’ve got it figured out, why haven’t we?”

Oberstar added that the U.S. has a history of investing in infrastructure. When the first Congress met in 1789, the first two bills passed involved the creation of lighthouses, a transportation initiative. “We need a return to a sense of mission…of investing in America,” he said.