Labor Day on the Roads, Thanksgiving in the Skies

President and CEO, U.S. Travel Association

Last weekend millions of Americans struggled to get where they wanted to go over the Thanksgiving holiday. For the moment, Thanksgiving-like delays and congestion are a nuisance relegated to a few times a year. But not for long. As the economy recovers and long-haul travel continues to grow, travelers very soon will begin to experience Thanksgiving-like congestion several days of each and every week.

According to a new study, within the next decade 25 of the nation’s top 30 airports will experience the same congestion as the day before Thanksgiving at least two days a week. In some airports this will occur as soon as 2017.

An earlier study found that the future for our nation’s highways is no better.

Without significant investments to improve the performance of the National Highway System or provide alternative modes of transportation like high-speed rail, American highways will be as congested on a typical day as they are on Labor Day. For example, Labor Day congestion will be the reality on I-95 between Palm Beach and Melbourne, Fla., as soon as 2020, and between New York and Washington, DC, as soon as 2024.

For the country that built the transcontinental railroad, federal highway system and once boasted an aviation system that was the envy for the world, this is simply unacceptable.

As recently as 10 years ago, Republicans and Democrats worked together to invest in America’s transportation infrastructure. Congressional leaders made high-performing infrastructure a priority to meet demand and grow our economy.

But times have changed. Referring to transportation funding, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, (D-W.Va.), said it best earlier this year: “We in Congress have simply not done our jobs when it comes to investing for the future.”

While everyone in Washington agrees that something must be done, not everyone who is impacted by the problem has pressed Congress for solutions. But the transportation infrastructure challenge has now grown so dire that travel businesses can no longer stand on the sidelines of this debate.

The diverse players in the $2 trillion travel industry—including hotels, rental cars, theme parks as well as local convention and visitors bureaus—are now preparing to push for solutions. Poor infrastructure undermines our ability to expand domestic travel, compete for international visitors and create jobs. Just as important, for an industry that prides itself on efficiency and customer service, outdated infrastructure makes the travel experience frustrating and costly, thus dampening demand for travel.

One thing is clear: states, local governments and the private sector cannot solve this problem on their own. While each has stepped up to fill the void left by Congress, our infrastructure is too expansive for any one state to manage, too expensive for any one company to fund, and too important for any elected representative to relinquish their role.

Until now, the industry as a whole has not supported any increase in user fees to pay for additional infrastructure investments. If we are going to solve this problem, it is time to consider user fees as part of the solution.

All signs indicate that voters and travelers agree and are willing to pay for improvements and a better experience. Earlier this month, voters approved nearly 30-ballot initiatives providing funding for highways, bridges and transit projects totaling nearly $716 million. This was the largest number of initiatives in a decade for an off-year election.

Thanksgiving travel is frustrating but unless Congress acts, every day in America will be Labor Day on the roads and Thanksgiving in the skies. The federal government needs to get back in the game and jump-start investments in transportation solutions.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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