The coronavirus pandemic has changed how the world does business. Consumers are more comfortable with e-commerce than ever before. Manufacturers are embracing reshoring in an effort to mitigate future supply chain disruptions. Logistics companies are sprinting to keep up.
The chaos that accompanied the early days of the pandemic may be over, but resulting consumer and manufacturing trends continue to place increased pressure on the U.S. supply chain. Unfortunately, the nation’s transportation infrastructure is ill-suited to meet growing demands.
“The average American consumer is beyond spoiled with their expectations of what happens in the supply chain world,” Dunavant Enterprises President and CEO Bill Dunavant said. “They demand that e-commerce deliveries are on their doorsteps the next day. They don’t care about a supply chain disruption. That ripples back through the supply chain and puts pressure on the system.”
Pure dedication — and even dedication plus technology — is not enough to keep up with evolving consumer expectations. It is impossible for companies to meet their customers’ growing demands without having the infrastructure in place to support their taxed supply chains.
Transportation infrastructure across the U.S. is woefully underprepared to support manufacturers, retailers and logistics companies in navigating this new consumer landscape.
“Over the past 25 years, the U.S. has been lagging in the push for infrastructure spending,” Dunavant said. “Compared to China, the U.S. is way behind.”
President Joe Biden signed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law in 2021. These funds are set to be distributed across a wide variety of verticals — from high-speed internet and power infrastructure to public transportation and electric vehicle charging.
The White House has touted this deal as a “once-in-a-generation investment.” That is part of the problem.
In 2022, China announced plans to funnel at least $2.3 trillion into growing its infrastructure, according to Bloomberg. The country intends to invest that sum over the course of one year. In comparison, the latest $1.2 trillion U.S. infrastructure investment will be distributed over five years.
“As an American, I want our country to always be ahead of the competition,” Dunavant said. “If you look at companies moving away from China right now, it is clear that they are making bets on countries they see as being worthwhile to make an investment on in the next 35-50 years.”
This investment discrepancy is especially troubling in light of recent reshoring trends. Manufacturers are looking to move away from China due to rising costs and ongoing logistical hiccups.
The U.S. government has been vocal about its desire to welcome these companies to its shores. In order to do that, however, the nation must be equipped with the infrastructure necessary to support an influx of manufacturing operations.
“As an industry, we have to work together to get our government to understand that it’s one thing to say we want manufacturing back in America, but it’s everything to make it happen,” Dunavant said. “We have to be more forward looking.”
While improvements could be made across various U.S. transportation networks — including rail, air and ocean — roads and bridges should, arguably, be the country’s most pressing concern.
“Roads are the lifeblood of transportation. You can talk about rail, air and ocean, but at the end of the day, everything comes down the road,” Dunavant said.
Not only are roads the most-used transportation method in America, they are also the most outdated. It is impossible to traverse the nation’s highways without encountering traffic jams due to overcrowding and generally poor road surface conditions.
Despite this, only a relatively small portion of the $1.2 trillion earmarked for infrastructure repairs across the nation has been allocated to updating roads and bridges.
“The legislation will reauthorize surface transportation programs for five years and invest $110 billion in additional funding to repair our roads and bridges and support major, transformational projects,” according to a White House news release concerning the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The White House goes on to note that this bill provides the largest single source of funding awarded to rebuilding the nation’s bridges since the inception of the interstate highway system under the Eisenhower administration, further illustrating the neglect the country’s roadways have endured.
It is important to consider how these limited funds can be effectively used to both maintain and expand road infrastructure in the U.S. These projects tend to be long-term, multiyear commitments that take time and dedication to plan, build and execute. Because of this, it is crucial for government leaders and other decision-makers to look 50 years into the future — not five — when planning these improvements.
“We can’t build roads and only think 10 years out. We have to be thinking at least 25-50 years ahead,” Dunavant said.
Maintaining what we have
America’s highways and bridges have fallen into disrepair, and the country’s No. 1 priority should be updating and maintaining the infrastructure that is already in place.
Across all 50 states, one in three bridges is in need of repair, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. Drivers cross 42,951 “structurally deficient” bridges over 163 million times per day, and 29% of those bridges are on interstates. Despite this clear safety hazard, the association calculated that it would take almost 70 years to fix those bridges at the current repair rate.
Addressing these pressing concerns — alongside other existing highway safety threats and road surface deficiencies — should take precedence. The U.S. needs a solid place to build from if it hopes to catch up to the competition and become an infrastructure leader.
Expanding into new frontiers
In addition to addressing existing safety and quality issues with the country’s roads and bridges, decision-makers should focus on expanding existing infrastructure to meet growing demands.
Perhaps the most critical example is America’s major corridors, including I-10, I-40, I-69 and I-95. These interstates support the bulk of the nation’s traffic — commercial and otherwise — on a daily basis, and they are not currently suited to meet modern demands.
When thinking about future expansion, the first order of business should be expanding all major corridors beyond four lanes to address overcrowding and consistent traffic safety issues. Additionally, as these upgrades and expansions take place, it is important that legislators keep their eyes on the midterm and long-term future of road usage.
Autonomous trucks are being developed and tested at breakneck speeds. These vehicles will be a common sight on the nation’s highways in the midterm future, and the infrastructure to support them must start being put into place today.
Like legislators and infrastructure decision-makers, supply chain leaders must embrace a forward-thinking approach to their innovations and operations. Planning for the long term, while allowing room to adjust to unforeseen headwinds, will give companies a better chance at thriving tomorrow, not just today.