Monday, February 16, 2009

National Journal Panel: The (Foreign) Language of Transportation Innovation

The (Foreign) Language of Transportation Innovation

Some years ago, a European friend told me this joke: If someone who speaks three languages is trilingual and someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, what do you call someone who speaks one language? An American! I laughed when I first heard this joke. But it wasn’t a full-throated belly laugh. It was the ironic, mournful laugh of one who faces a sad reality.

We Americans are very good at many things: farming, food production, sports, motion pictures, theater, medical research, construction, and much more. But compared to the rest of the world, we’re not very good at learning to speak other languages. Why should we learn other languages when the rest of the world speaks English? And why should we wonder what those people who speak other languages are doing with their time? What could they possibly be doing that we haven’t already figured out? Well, the answer is quite a bit.

Last December, New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman wrote an interesting column about the technological advances he’s encountered abroad. He observed how wonderful it was to make a static-free phone call from Hong Kong to his wife in Maryland using a friend’s Chinese cell phone. A few hours later, Friedman took off from Hong Kong’s ultramodern airport after riding out there from downtown on a sleek high-speed train — with wireless connectivity that was so good he was able to surf the Web the whole way on his laptop.

Returning to the U.S., Friedman confronted a host of frustrating realities. He noted the ugly low-ceilinged arrival hall at Kennedy Airport where they charge $3 to use a luggage cart. Why don’t we Americans let visitors to our country use a luggage cart for free after traveling thousands of miles to get here, as other countries do at their international airports? He noted the Penn Station escalators that are so narrow it’s almost impossible to carry a suitcase and the grimy trackside platforms that haven’t been cleaned in years. He also bemoaned his ride on the Acela train on which he tried to conduct an interview by cell phone, only to have his call dropped three times in 15 minutes. He concluded his mini-critique of America by asking, “If we’re so smart, why are other people living so much better than us?” The rest of Friedman’s column, Time to Reboot America, provides further commentary along these lines.

It’s clear to me that we have much to learn from our non-American cousins about improving the efficiency and sustainability of our transportation networks. For example, in the last decade the people of Santiago, Chile – a country with one-twentieth the population of the U.S. and less than one-fiftieth of our GDP – have constructed a modern, integrated network of five major motorways crisscrossing the city, all supported by a system of fully electronic open road tolling. There are no tollbooths in Santiago. However, there is a modern urban highway network entirely supported by tolls that are paid electronically by vehicles as they move swiftly through the city.

Across the Atlantic, the equivalent of our interstate highway system in “Old” Europe is an integrated network of toll roads operated by a collection of diverse private sector concessionaires. The 20 countries that are part of ASECAP, the European toll road association, collect $30 billion a year in tolls on a network of less than 18,000 miles of superhighways. Germany alone collects over $4 billion a year in tolls on heavy trucks. That’s nearly half the total value of tolls we collect in the United States in one year.

On the other side of the globe, the National Highways Authority of India is in the process of “four-laning” more than 12,000 kilometers of interurban highways in the Golden Quadrilateral and converting these roads to tolling. Road tolling makes a lot of sense to South Americans, Europeans, Asians, Australians, and South Africans. Our cousins abroad are successfully using tolls – and especially non-stop electronic tolling – to rebuild their highway systems, improve mobility, and stimulate economic growth. Meanwhile, back in America, we continue to rely on a federal gasoline tax that hasn’t been increased since the first year of the Clinton administration – a tax that continues to lose purchasing power and significance in our push to improve our nation’s infrastructure.

Why do we continue to ignore the technological and transportation funding wisdom of billions of people in Asia, Europe, South America and scores of other countries around the globe? When will we learn the language of transportation innovation?

Patrick D. Jones, Executive Director & CEO,
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association

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