March Madness: Transportation makes “the shot” possible

In my inaugural blog post for Transportation Matters, I thought I would start by explaining, in the broadest sense possible, why the quality of our transportation system matters to our success as a state and nation. But if you are one of the millions who have been glued to the TV in recent days watching March Madness, you will already know that UPS has done that for me.

UPS has dominated the field this March when it comes to commercials. One of the ads in its “Game Changers” campaign replays “the shot” on its 20th anniversary. Of course, “the shot” was made by Duke’s Christian Laettner at the buzzer to beat Kentucky in 1992. The play is etched into the mind of every college basketball fan over the age of 30 (and yes, there are some loud protests from Kentucky fans over this commercial).

After showing Grant Hill, with 2.1 seconds on the clock, inbound the ball the length of the court to Laettner, who turns on a dime and makes the shot at the buzzer, the narrator says, “Everybody remembers the shot, but what about the pass? No pass, no shot. You need a special player to get the ball exactly where it needs to be, exactly when it needs to be there."

(Haven’t seen it yet or want to relive the moment again? Check it out here.)

And there it is. UPS explains why logistics matters. And, of course, the transportation network is what UPS relies on in order to be that special player that gets the product exactly where it needs to be, exactly when it needs to be there.

And now, let’s discuss business and the economy in our state – and the “passes” or assists that precede the numbers on the board.

In 2011, Wisconsin recorded a record high $22 billion in exports, with the top six being:

1.         Industrial machinery

2.         Agriculture

3.         Electrical machinery

4.         Scientific and medical instruments

5.         Transportation equipment

6.         Paper products

Statistics like increased exports or increased sales or, hopefully, record profits are the numbers that we should celebrate. They are “the shot.” But without the pass, there would be no shot.

The unfortunate part of the national conversation about transportation in the post-stimulus era is that we have blurred this crucial point. The president and others have sold transportation investment largely under the banner of how many jobs it creates in the construction industry. Those are great, family-supporting jobs, but that is an ancillary benefit, not the reason for maintaining and updating our transportation infrastructure.

The main reason, which apparently isn’t as obvious as it should be, is that it makes U.S. businesses more competitive. It makes “the shot” possible. The flip side is that an underperforming transportation system will act as a cap on economic growth. A weak pass, no shot.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has attempted to quantify this by creating the Transportation Performance Index. The index combines indicators of supply (availability), quality of service (reliability, predictability, and safety), and utilization (potential for future growth) across all modes of passenger and freight transportation – highway, public transportation, freight railroad, aviation, marine, and intermodal – in order to show how well the U.S. transportation system is serving the needs of businesses and the overall economy.

According to the chamber, “For each single point of improvement in the transportation index, GDP would increase by 0.3%. In other words, allowing the nation’s overall transportation performance to lag behind the average index of the top five states leaves about $1 trillion of potential GDP on the table.”

Whether it is scientific and medical instruments being exported from Wisconsin to states and countries abroad, or the nurse practitioner taking the bus to get to and from work, or taconite moving across rail lines and through the ports, our transportation network matters in ways we never even contemplate.

As UConn’s legendary women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma says in another spot for UPS, “When the ball goes in the basket, the average person does not see what leads to that – the choreography, the movement, the flow. Five people and the ball – all arriving at the perfect place at the perfect time. That’s logistics.”

Let’s hope that our elected officials, whose decisions will dictate the future of our aging transportation network, are, first, college basketball fans and, second, did not DVR the games and skip the commercials.

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