Positive Momentum to Build On

If you were one of the tens of thousands who traveled to Las Vegas last month, you likely felt the same positive vibe as the rest of us. The halls and paths of CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2014, both inside and out, were packed with attendees chatting excitedly, bags loaded with literature (and trinkets), and happily crawling in and out of the machines on display. A number were even signing on the dotted line for major equipment purchases, taking advantage of special deals on the show floor.

For us editorial types, there were dozens of press conferences to attend throughout the week as manufacturers announced Tier 4 updates, new models and even expansions into previously unexplored product categories. The show goes on record as one of the most exhausting, and rewarding, I’ve attended in 20+ years in the industry.

It was certainly a breath of fresh air compared to three years ago. While attendance was decent in 2011, there was still a sense of uncertainty and caution among both visitors and exhibitors. Many attendees had come to look, but the purse strings were held pretty tight. And while exhibitors had new equipment on display, only a handful were entirely “new” to the market. Fewer major products were announced, as manufacturers held off introducing new units in what was still a shaky economic environment.

Much has happened in just three years. The U.S. economic recovery has continued a slow but steady upward climb, and construction activity has risen with it. This year holds promise for even further growth. The self-generated political crises that have become an almost annual occurrence appear to have been set aside in the face of mid-term federal elections. Without such shocks to the system, the economy may finally gain the momentum it needs to stabilize and see more substantive growth.

A more stable general economy should encourage further private sector investment in construction activity. The private sector already represents the lion’s share of construction spending to date, given flat to declining public sector investment. The year has already seen growth in many market segments (including office, communication, single-family and multi-family construction), and the prospects for 2014 and beyond are solid, barring any unforeseen economic, political or global crises that sends the stock market spiraling.

There is also momentum building on multiple fronts surrounding federal highway bill reauthorization. In addition to the usual transportation industry professionals (associations, manufacturers, contractors, etc.), state governments and the general public — tired of endless transportation disruptions and outright failures — are putting pressure on legislators to ensure passage of a new bill this fall, or at minimum to address funding shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to be depleted by late summer. (See “Highway Trust Fund Will Go Broke in Mid-August 2014”, or visit www.dot.gov/highway-trust-fund-ticker.)

This pressure has created a sense of urgency on Capitol Hill to develop a solution that addresses transportation infrastructure demands long term. Passage of multi-year funding legislation would provide the guarantees state DOTs need to release large-scale public projects previously shelved due to uncertain funding availability.

The construction industry isn’t in full recovery mode yet. But there are positive indicators and a sense of renewed optimism that weren’t there three years ago. If the momentum we’re seeing today can be built upon, it could provide the foundation for a sustained recovery within the foreseeable future.

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