Someday that white highway stripe and those familiar road signs will be as visible to the human eye on a dark stormy night as they are in bright sunlight. And that's a good thing, especially considering the vision-deteriorating eyes of the aging American population. But while such technology -- as described by Larry Lair, vice president of traffic safety systems for 3M, is well on its way, other kinds of highway vision must still be developed.


These were some conclusions a gathering of highway industry officials came to on Thursday, June 29, as a 50th anniversay two-day forum wrapped up at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. Sponsored by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and the Transportation Construction Coalition, the forum included discussion of GPS technology in construction, ground penetrating radars to detect hidden utilizites, radio-frequency chips in lane stripes to guide vehicles, and of course the future of the troubled highway trust fund. Asset management and high-tech solutions will be vital to helping the Interstate survive and thrive as it enters its next half-century. But overall, the nation's highway system needs a vision--and not just hindsight.

I moderated a Thursday morning panel that featured 3M's Lair, Steve Massie of Jack Massie Contractors and Joe Deneault of HNTB Corp. It was a great honor, even though I had to get up at 6 a.m. for it.

Massie said that GPS technology is getting more of his construction operators off the ground and into the machines and is speeding up work by 25%. He envisions a day when workers will be trained through virtual reality. GPS technology isn't readily available on sites with lots of obstructions in the way of satellite signals, but someday it will be, he said.

Deneault agreed. "It's all about technology," he said. And the technology will continue to increase in accuracy and decrease in costs. For example, ground penetrating radar that can now scan an area up to 10 feet deep for utilities on a site will someday be able to tell what kind of pipe is there and what it's carrying. "The next generation will be used to high-tech tools," he added..

Michael Meyer, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, used his rapid-fire oratorical skills to sum up in half an hour and 90 slides the summaries of discussion groups that met Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning. Ideas for a vision for the Interstate abounded. They include creating and modernizing corridors that will carry freight goods through the country as speedily and efficiently as possible. Some said regional travel needs to be separated. Intermodalism is inevitable, asserted others. Aerial truck-only lanes were suggested. One suggestion included hiring a public relations firm to make the public more aware of the importance of infrastructure (and thus, perhaps, more willing to pay higher gas taxes).

But the biggest highlight was an appearance by U.S. Dept. of Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. Mineta, who is resigning July 7 after almost 40 years of public service.

Mineta received prolonged standing ovations upon his entrance and exit Thursday morning. Before his arrival, industry folk chatted about the possibility that he is moving to the private sector -- to a job that will keep him even busier than he was as DOT secretary. Even busier? Was that even possible? people wondered..

Jane Garvey, the vivacious former Federal Aviation Administration chief, gave Mineta an eloquent introduction and a couple of big hugs. Although many participants of the forum were doubtful about the real impact of public-private partnerships -- indeed, one participant called PPP "smoke and mirrors--Mineta stated it bluntly: "Surface transportation has been almost exclusively under the purview of the public sector. That mindset has to change."

The public sector has to accept the private sector not only in funding or certain functions, but as a "full partner" in management, inspection, construction and operations, he said. "Some are wedded to the status quo. But the strain on [transportation] points to the urgent need to find new ways."

When question-and-answer time came, I got the portable mike. I found that I was so nervous that I forgot to stand all the way up and to introduce myself. So there I stood, hovering halfway between sitting and being upright, stuttering. When Jane Garvey prompted me to identify myself, I blurted out: "I'm the transportation editor at ENR and thank you for inspiring me as an Asian American DOT secretary." It was totally true.

Then I asked him about the future of the fuel tax model as the basis for the highway trust fund. He joked: "Next question."

He left no doubt that it is eroding. But there were no easy answers to the question. It had been debated throughout the two days. Politicians don't want to say "higher taxes" to the public, but without a higher fuel tax, the transportation fund as is will eventually be in the red..

He spoke at length about emerging "chokepoints" in the transportation system, as Americans continue migrating to the coasts and away from the central regions. Short sea shipping via inland waterways must be better utilized, he added.

He ended his session with an anecdote about how FEMA had wanted to commandeer DOT generators during last year's Gulf region hurricanes. And the Democrat said wryly: "A heckuva job, Brownie."

Garvey rather ruefully noted that she could never have made that joke without a Republican in the room coming after her.

That night, Mineta spoke briefly at the ARTBA-sponsored reception before leaving to attend a state dinner with the Prime Minister of Japan. He left with a long and funny story about being a Japanese American (somebody thought 'Mineta' must be Italian.)

After a delectable steak-and-salmon dinner came featured speaker Gen. Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, the guy with the little red Corvette. He talked about how the creation of the Interstate focused road travel on economics--now, as a black man, he could patronize roadside facilities and restaurants without being turned away.

Mineta, Garvey and Powell, all prominent presences in the transportation industry, all charismatic leaders who didn't ignore so much as transcend their identities in a still mostly homogenous setting. As a truly minority woman of color in this particular crowd, I was truly grateful to all of them.

Happy birthday, Interstate!