Setting The Record Straight On Highway Infrastructure

08/01/2017 08:24 am ET Updated Aug 01, 2017
Tim Graham via Getty Images

We all rely on our nation’s transit systems, highways, bridges, ports and railroads to connect us every day to our jobs and families. These systems are also vital to the delivery of goods and services that drive our economy. But our infrastructure is failing at an alarming rate that is outpacing the government’s ability to finance repairs.

President Trump has proposed a $1 trillion investment to tackle this problem. Stakeholders and lawmakers are beginning to plan and working together to prepare an overhaul that is done efficiently and equitably. It has been a cooperative approach, which is why it is unfortunate and disappointing that some in the rail industry would take advantage of this national crisis to spread falsehoods about trucking and the nation’s highway system. Here are the facts:

The American Trucking Associations believes the federal government must have a strong role in funding our national highway infrastructure as the preservation and promotion of interstate commerce is one of the core responsibilities of the federal government established by the Constitution. For decades, we have relied on the Highway Trust Fund – primarily funded by the federal fuel tax that we all pay at the pump when we fill up our tanks – to help repair and maintain our nation’s roads and bridges. But the Trust Fund is on fumes and the government has had to resort to general fund transfers to try to keep pace with maintenance.

The average motorist in the U.S. is losing $1,483 annually due to roads that are congested or in poor condition.

We agree that highway users should pay for their use of the system, but it is utterly false to suggest trucks are responsible for all highway maintenance costs. According to the Federal Highway Administration, environmental factors like rain, snow, ice and heat alone are responsible for about one-third of pavement damage. That is before even considering that poor maintenance practices and other vehicles are also responsible for highway infrastructure costs.

Trucking is most certainly paying its fair share for maintenance. Since 2008, when general fund transfers began, around 80 percent of federal Highway Trust Fund dollars have come directly from user fees. Trucks account for 45 percent of federal highway user-fee revenues paid. Yet trucks nationally amount to just 9 percent of vehicle miles traveled and represent just 4 percent of all registered vehicles.

ATA also strongly opposes the continued subsidies of the trust fund with general fund money. It is an irresponsible and unsustainable method of paying for national highway infrastructure.

That is why ATA has testified before Congress at least 19 times since 2006 in support of increasing the federal fuel tax to inflation, but Congress has so far refused to support an increase.

At some point the fuel tax may need replacing as the primary funding source for highways due to advances in alternative fueling systems. A vehicle miles traveled tax might be the answer, but it is extremely expensive to collect and before such a tax can ever be implemented, there are serious issues related to privacy, data security, and evasion, that would need to be addressed. While some states have historically imposed weight-distance taxes on trucks, all but four have done away with them, in part due to the ease of evasion, which essentially creates a tax that financially rewards bad behavior and punishes the good operator that complies. In New York State, the evasion rate is an alarming 50 percent.

For the immediate future, the fuel tax is the most efficient and fair way to fund highways. For anyone who would suggest that this “sticks it to taxpayers,” here’s the kicker. Taxpayers are already paying dearly for the government’s inaction on fixing our nation’s highways. The average motorist in the U.S. is losing $1,483 annually due to roads that are congested or in poor condition. They are paying $523 annually ― $112 billion nationally ― in additional vehicle operating costs as a result of driving on roads in need of repair. And they are paying an average of $960 in lost time due to congestion. Additionally, neglect of our highway infrastructure costs lives. These costs could go down exponentially with modest investment in infrastructure improvement.

Rather than creating division in the debate, railroads should be exploring ways to lower costs and stimulate competition in their own industry. Freight rails have historically enjoyed subsidies through land grants and continue to receive federal subsidies. In 2014-15, they received $135 million in federal grants under the TIGER program. In addition, freight railroads are protected by federal laws that allow them to minimize competition and enjoy subsidies not afforded to trucking companies. In essence, they maintain an oligopoly that is void of competition, but unlike public utilities which are regulated, the railroads are free to dictate prices and hold captive shippers hostage to them.

Rebuilding our infrastructure is a monumental effort that will require prioritizing our needs in the most fair and equitable way. To achieve success, we need to stop false suggestions that are off the rails, and encourage collaboration among all stakeholders.

Chris Spear is President and CEO of American Trucking Associations

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