Be thankful for all those cars stuck in traffic this holiday

Traffic stopped on I-40Traffic stopped on I-40

This Thanksgiving, I’m especially thankful for traffic jams – those ridiculous and often needless backups that ruin the great American holiday for so many.

First, let me frame my comments: Thanksgiving is THE multigenerational event in my family. Christmas is something done at home, where kids roll out of their own beds and straight to their tree, period.

So you’d better not miss Thanksgiving, rotated among my siblings and our still willing and able parents. There’s also now a whole passel of the next couple of generations to overwhelm the event. And dogs, lots of dogs.

And because one of my brothers has five grandkids all under the age of 3, we convened at his place in the Tennessee hills this year, meaning a drive of 400 or so miles for the rest of us, largely on I-40.

Tennessee, it so happens, is one of the eight states through which I-40 runs, and these states are all participating in the “I-40 Challenge,” the goal of which is zero fatalities over the holiday. Signs in Tennessee caution that troopers are located every 20 miles – and on Wednesday there seemed to be even more than that.

Traffic was heavy but fast when we came through, no issues and no accidents that we saw. So thank you, troopers, for at least getting folks’ attention.

But I’m really thankful that Tennessee is not Arkansas – because, once again, I-40 between Little Rock and Memphis could be counted on to be a parking lot. Two of the three carloads of Joneses knew to check Google traffic to know where to get off the Interstate and drive on parallel US 70.

The third sat for an hour and a half, along with plenty of other holiday travelers, because somebody had a problem negotiating a construction zone. And when a major national East-West artery is reduced to one lane in each direction, somebody’s always going to have trouble and everybody else is going to be stuck.

I’m going to get someone to do the math on the cost of lost productivity to truckers who have to run this lane regularly. Nationwide, ATRI puts the cost of congestion to trucking at $9.2 billion, and the lost driver-hours is the equivalent of more than 50,000 drivers sitting idle for a year.

Yet it continues, because Congress refuses to invest in improving the nation’s highways.

From the 60 Minutes feature, “Falling apart: America’s neglected infrastructure.” (Click the image to access the CBS report)From the 60 Minutes feature, “Falling apart: America’s neglected infrastructure.” (Click the image to access the CBS report)

On Sunday, 60 Minutes featured the problem in a segment, “Falling apart: America’s neglected infrastructure.”

There was a lot of the usual hand-wringing about failing bridges – whatever works to get people’s attention. The piece also featured former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who famously refused to consider a gas tax increase when he served in the Obama administration but who now stumps in favor. LaHood flatly blames “politicians in Washington.”

“They don’t want to spend the money. They don’t want to raise the taxes,” LaHood says. “They don’t really have a vision of America the way that other Congresses have had a vision of America.”

Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania, took the camera crew out for an up close look at some of that state’s crumbling bridges on the critical I-95 corridor. Rendell tells of a highway construction crew who just happened to be getting a sandwich from a vendor beneath one of those bridges when they looked up and saw potentially catastrophic cracks in one of the bridge’s support beams.

Lucky for Pennsylvania that Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, represents them in Congress, right? Shuster declined to speak to 60 Minutes, and under his leadership the committee has not even offered a new highway bill for debate.

What’s it going take? If Congress won’t pay attention to the business and labor interests who continue to plead for increased investment in our highways – and the tens of thousands of jobs that go along with it – then maybe Washington will listen to some angry moms and dads, recently returned from a trip to grandma’s house that should’ve taken two hours but instead took four.

So, I’m sorry to say, I am thankful for those holiday traffic jams and the crying kids in the backseat – because I don’t know how else to get Congress and the White House to do something. Don’t yell at the kids, yell at your elected officials.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.