WASHINGTON — In the belief that delays, congestion and a lack of connectivity pose a growing threat to the travel experience and to the travel economy, the U.S. Travel Association has elevated infrastructure issues to a top priority on its lobbying and public awareness agenda.
The association’s commitment was on display here last week at the group’s inaugural conference, titled "Connecting America Through Travel."
The event brought together more than 200 delegates from destination marketing organizations and other segments of the travel industry, plus airport operators and state and local transportation experts. The keynote speaker was Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
One panelist, Peter Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, looked out on the audience and welcomed the “new warriors” from the travel industry, saying he hoped that U.S. Travel would make infrastructure issues “a core part of your communication and public awareness efforts.”
In a reciprocal gesture, Loews Hotels Chairman Jonathan Tisch, who is chairman emeritus of U.S. Travel, told the transportation officials in the audience, “You have a new ally.”
U.S. Travel President Roger Dow and conference chair Rossi Ralenkotter, who is CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, both said that the fast trains, efficient airports and seamless connectivity found in many foreign countries are outshining what the U.S. has to offer.
Tisch called it “a slow-motion crisis” and lamented that the U.S. “doesn’t have the policies in place to fix it.”
A key point that U.S. Travel hopes to drive home is that the effects of bad infrastructure go beyond congestion and lost productivity: They also devalue the travel experience and make the U.S. less competitive in the global marketplace.
The problem is also mirrored on the local level in numerous destinations.
During one panel discussion, Brad Dean, CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that 95% of the destination’s visitors arrive by road and encounter a choke point on the last leg of the trip: the lack of an interstate highway connection to the main north-south artery, I-95, which is some 35 miles from the beach.
Dean said that in traveler surveys, local traffic congestion is the most frequently cited reason why visitors say they will not return. Eliminating the congestion could bring in an additional $300 million a year in visitor spending, he said.
To drive home the point for air travelers, U.S. Travel released a study by the Eno Center for Transportation that argued that capacity constraints at major airports and in the air traffic control system are jeopardizing billions of dollars of economic activity. Based on case studies of several major airports, the Eno report recommended four moves that could address the problem:
• Restructure the Transportation Department’s method of allocating funds for airport projects so that more money flows to airports where improvements will have the greatest impact on national goals.
• Create incentives for airports to base landing fees on congestion-pricing principals (peak/off-peak) rather than on the weight of the aircraft.
• Spin off the FAA’s air traffic control operation from its core safety function, to help expedite the transition to next-gen, satellite-based air traffic control.
• Raise the $4.50 cap on airport Passenger Facility Charges so that airports have more flexibility to raise funds for capital improvements.
Without additional capacity, U.S. Travel said, the air travel infrastructure in the U.S. will become so congested that the crowds and delays familiar to Thanksgiving-week travelers will be an everyday occurrence.
According to a Cambridge Systematics study commissioned by U.S. Travel, “at current rates of growth, unless capacity is added,” two dozen major airports could experience at least one such day per week during the next five years, and it will be two such days per week five years after that.
New York’s airports are high on the list. U.S. Travel said Kennedy could become the first airport in the country where every day is like the day before Thanksgiving, which motivated the Global Gateway Alliance, an advocacy group for New York-area aviation infrastructure, to endorse the Eno recommendations.
Foxx did not directly address the four points but said high-performing rail service and other infrastructure improvements remain high on the Obama administration’s list of priorities.
He noted that transportation infrastructure has traditionally not been a partisan issue in Washington, and he hopes it stays that way so that his department can help “rebuild and rethink” American’s transportation systems.
What Could Travel in America Look Like? from U.S. Travel on Vimeo.