EDITORIAL: Can’t put a finger on it

Exactly when market will pull out of slump is uncertain

Blog Entry December 06, 2012

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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This little piggy had next to nothing.

None is probably too harsh a word, but nobody doubted the economic hardship of Daviess County, Ind. It possessed something, just not enough of it. And when your belongings can fit in a trash bag, it’s understandable if the feeling of neglect settles in, and that came pouring out when Daviess County Council President Mike Sprinkle called his pedicure-deprived landscape the “stinky toe of Indiana.”

The state, however, hopes it provided enough polish following the opening of the newest stretch of I-69. Gov. Mitch Daniels was on hand to attempt to paint a prettier picture anyway, as the leader christened the 67-mile thoroughfare with enough positive words to disinfect the smells of a soured economy.

It was easy to usher in the new segment of I-69 with rose petals. The project finished years ahead of schedule and was $80 million under budget. Call it a major victory for Indiana’s Major Moves initiative, which has turned the DOT into a big-league operation when you are talking about road and bridge projects. However, the performance-enhancing injection of money cannot permanently stop the overall feeling of weakness across the country, and in 2014 the Indiana DOT could indeed find its construction strategy on bed rest.
Other states lost the feeling in their legs a few years ago, but some had the chance to run again on Election Day, when 31 transportation measures—five at the state level and 26 at the local level—decorated the ballot. All seven of the bond initiatives were approved, and total value that was passed amounted to $2.4 billion. According to ARTBA, the go-ahead rating of 68% was as strong as in other elections. It was actually up from 61% in 2010, but the elections in 2004 (76%), 2006 (77%) and 2008 (78%) produced more convincing results.

According to another economist, the total number of ballot requests was down compared with years past, and this expert took it a step further to say many voters are deciding with their feet, meaning more and more are favoring other forms of transportation like bicycles and light rail.

I was a bit taken aback by the comment. Frankly, it made my nonstinking toes curl in frustration. Although it is true that people have relied more on their own mode of transportation—feet—since the Great Recession of 2009, automobile sales continue to be on the rise, and rail systems continue to be the rise and fall of the Obama administration. High-speed rail has achieved a mixed bag of success over the last four years, and light rail across the country is still in need of a major upgrade in terms of accommodations and route offerings. Furthermore, public transportation, including buses, has expressed a sudden need to increase fares. Here in Chicago, the Metra and CTA have announced multiple hikes over recently, most of it the result of poor management. The perfume-scented benefits these systems stuck under our noses just a few years ago are starting to fade. Cities also have been slow to develop more livability initiatives.

Even if there were a dramatic shift in favor of the packed-sardine lifestyle, roads and bridges would still need to be repaired and replaced. The smell of rotted pavement and rebar would be simply too much to bear.

I think 2013 will indeed be a flat year for the marketplace. I’m not stepping out on a limb with that prediction, but I do like some of the signs I am seeing—and they are flashing a resurgence somewhere down the line. I’m not going to guess exactly when that will happen. On second thought, there might be one way to get a reading. Next chance I get I am licking my big, bare toe, sticking it up in the air and . . . oh, never mind. That only works with my index finger. R&B

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