This past Sunday I headed to D.C. in what has been a ritual for over a decade: to attend the annual Transportation Research Board meeting. Every train listed on the Amtrak board before my 4 pm Acela train departed on time. At 3:50, the schedule board told us to “stand by” for the track number. At 4:15, they finally figured out that the train wasn’t even in the station yet.
It was a bad omen.
It was also a bad omen that, unlike just about every other TRB conference I’ve ever been to, nobody had contacted me to pitch an exciting new technology, method or transportation hero. Just cocktail receptions (not that I mind those).
That uneasy feeling deepened when I looked through the session listings. Sure, I’ve poked fun with fellow reporters at session titles in the past: “A Study Of A New Design for Fast-Curing Concrete Columns On A Bridge In Substandard Soil Conditions Using 10-Inch Stainless Steel Bolts In A Sandwich Composite Deck” (I made that up, of course). But they were meaty technical sessions, accompanied by dozens of sessions on big megaprojects. My problem had always been deciding what to choose from.
This year, my problem was just the opposite. Sessions on furloughs and voluntary vacations, on the effectiveness of roadside advertising, and on bike lane and pavement marking designs?
I’m not trying to knock those kinds of sessions. It’s just that it seemed like this year’s TRB reflected a general malaise in the transportation world. Little wonder: we have no idea what (and when) the next transportation authorization will be. Repeated (bipartisan) calls from transportation experts for an interim gas tax increase are ignored. The public has forgotten about the Minneapolis bridge collapse and the state of our infrastructure.
Everyone is just struggling to survive lean times, and I felt the TRB conference reflected that.
On the way back to New York, I read the Washington Post. A 56-inch water main break. Systems and signals problems on the commuter trains. Cracked rail on the subway.
And in an interesting, somewhat cheerful twist, Virginia’s Republican governor convinced five Democrats to support him on a plan to spend $2.9 billion in borrowed money on road construction.
If only that sort of across-the-aisle agreement could be accomplished in Congress, too. Then maybe next year’s TRB will again have so many juicy sessions on big projects and neat technologies that I’ll have trouble choosing again.