Despite a continuing forecast of a strong economy, there remain key challenges ahead for the transportation industry in finding new workers and dealing with infrastructure funding issues, according to Arthur Rothkopf, senior vp at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and counselor to Chamber president Tom Donohue.

Rothkopf, a former undersecretary at the Dept. of Transportation, spoke to a recent gathering of private fleet managers hosted by leasing firm First Fleet Corp. in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, on critical issues that could impact the trucking industry over the long term.

“Though 2005 was a good year for business, we feel that we’re entering 2006 being challenged on several fronts,” he said. “The biggest challenge we face is how we as a nation are going to stay competitive with the rest of the world – especially China, Korea, and Europe.”

That’s why shortages of drivers, vehicle technicians and adequate roadways are complicating transportation’s ability to offer the logistics support American businesses need to succeed, Rothkopf noted.

“Transportation infrastructure is simply not adequate in this country and labor shortages are being experienced across the country,” he said. “These are creating costly delays and inefficiencies in our supply chains.”

Though Congress passed a five-year $286 billion highway bill in 2005, the real issue is making sure all of that money is spent on its intended purpose – not earmarked for other interests, Rothkopf warned. “If the money in the bill is intended for infrastructure repair, then it must be spent on infrastructure repair – it shouldn’t be used to fund something else,” he said.

And even though the bill provides over a quarter trillion worth of funds, it still may not be enough, Rothkopf added, as DOT reports show highway maintenance funding needs fall short about $23 billion annually right now.

The ever-increasing number of proposals floated to raise new sources of funding – from user fees to targeted highway tools and vehicle mile taxes – for transportation infrastructure should “wake people up” to the worsening state of the highway and intermodal systems in the U.S., he said.

Energy needs are also a growing concern, said Rothkopf. “China and India alone have huge energy demands now,” he said. “In 20 years, it’s estimated that Asian energy demands alone are going to increase 130%, with the needs in the U.S. growing by one-third. We need to encourage conservation, but we also need to increase our energy supplies. There’s no silver bullet to our energy problems but we need to take a multifaceted approach. For example, we have a dearth of refineries to refine oil. We also need to look at new energy sources apart from oil.”

Finally, in terms of labor needs, Rothkopf pointed to the Chamber’s recent entry into education politics – with the goal of doubling the number and quality math and science high school graduates in the next 20 years along with ranking states on their K-12 education programs.

“It’s time to shine a spotlight on those states that aren’t doing well,” he said. “We are simply not able to compete in the global economy without an educated workforce – and it’s an issue at all levels of the economy. For example, half of all of Microsoft’s engineers and scientists are foreign nationals, though most get their education in the U.S. This shows we have a competitive problem.”