By Chris Spear
Editor’s note: Written by Chris Spear, chief executive of the American Trucking Associations. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
Despite the tribal nature of our politics today, issues remain that unite the American people. The need to address America’s growing infrastructure crisis is a perfect example. One fact we all can agree on is that our roads and bridges are in terrible shape.
The evidence is as alarming as it is abundant, with a bridge literally collapsing onto a busy interstate in Tennessee, and transportation officials lowering the speed limit to give motorists enough time to dodge potholes on a highway in Maryland – to name just two examples in the past several weeks.
Make no mistake: we’re no longer talking about a looming infrastructure crisis – we’re living one. And every day that Congress fails to act, more lives are being put in jeopardy.
The road to this present crisis was paved by decades of failed leadership in our nation’s capital. It’s been more than 25 years since an increase in the fuel-user fee has been enacted into law, shortchanging our nation’s roads and bridges of critical funding as they’ve endured the wear from decades of weather and usage. Congress has a constitutional responsibility over interstate commerce and its supporting infrastructure, but it’s devolved its authority, leaving states and localities to pick up the pieces where they can.
PRIME TIME TO ACT
But with President Donald Trump in office, decades of political cowardice can be upended – if he is able to seize the moment. Given his background in building and construction, he knows that no issue is more primed to rev America’s economic engine and create tens of thousands of good, working-class jobs. He has the right kind of instinct to see how big a winner infrastructure can be on the campaign trail in 2020, delivering immediate and tangible benefits to large blocs of the electorate – the general public, business and labor.
A wave of popular support would be behind an infrastructure bill, as frustrations boil over worsening traffic congestion across the country. The average commuter spends 42 hours each year sitting in traffic. Truckers can relate: The industry loses 1.2 billion hours of productivity to congestion in a year, costing some $74.5 billion.
These are the moments that true leaders seize upon, which is why American Trucking Associations is calling on Trump and Congress to support a 20-cent increase to the fee, at 5 cents per gallon per year over four years. Our plan, the Build America Fund, would raise $340 billion in new revenue over the next 10 years, generating immediate funds for roads, bridges and national infrastructure priorities. America deserves a big, bold vision for revitalizing infrastructure, and we believe this is the most conservative, viable and immediate solution available to turn that campaign promise into reality.
It’s easy to understand why conservative icon President Ronald Reagan twice oversaw increases in the user fee during his presidency. As a funding mechanism, it is deficit-neutral, generating hundreds of billions of dollars in new revenue without adding a dime to the federal budget deficit. It’s cost-effective, with 99 cents of every dollar collected going to the intended purpose of maintaining roads to bridges. The apparatus to administer it already exists, which means no new government programs or bloated bureaucracy are required.
However, there are funding mechanisms being proposed that should be of concern to many. Take, for instance, tolling, which has become a recent favorite of overeager governors looking for a new piggy bank to tap into. In comparison to the fuel-user fee, tolls are outrageously wasteful. As much as 33 cents of every dollar collected in tolls is wasted on overhead, administration and enforcement costs. Many tolling companies are often controlled by foreign investment banks whose only incentive is to earn a return for shareholders, rather than ensuring safe and efficient infrastructure for American motorists.
But even setting those big concerns aside, the greatest argument against tolling is that it’s – by its very nature – simply unworkable as a national funding mechanism. Tolls require a baseline volume of traffic to be profitable and attract investment, and the overwhelming, vast majority of roads in America do not have the throughput to justify tolls. While tolling can be a financially feasible proposition along busy corridors and in and around urban centers, they would be fiscally ruinous if prescribed across the wider country, depriving critically needed funds to rural America.
It’s time for Americans to reclaim our roads and bridges. We deserve infrastructure fitting of the world’s greatest economy. What it takes is real money – not fake funding. We urge Washington to take action to repair our nation’s roads and bridges.
It’s time to get America moving again.
Editor’s note: Chris Spear is chief executive of the American Trucking Associations. He served as the senior vice president of legislative affairs for the ATA from May 2014 to October 2015, when he became vice president of government affairs at Hyundai Motor Co.
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