Highway bill delays frustrate freight transport community
Bush administration officials, shippers and carriers attending the National Industrial Transportation League’s Spring Policy Forum Monday in Arlington, Va., said they are anxious for Congress to pass the long-delayed surface transportation authorization bill soon as possible.
Jeffrey Shane, undersecretary for policy at the Department of Transportation, reiterated the administration’s call for the House and Senate to complete a bill adopting the $284 billion, multiyear spending plan before the end of May, when the current extension of the previous highway spending blueprint expires.
Congress has extended the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century six times during the past 19 months to continue funding infrastructure projects at previous levels, but state transportation departments, road builders and users have complained that the lack of funding certainty is holding up many projects critical to the economy.
Although the highway bill is $28 billion more than the Bush administration proposed in last year’s budget, state government and industry officials say the United States needs much more significant investment just to stay even with transportation demand. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, unsuccessfully fought for a $375 billion package of highway and rail projects.
Shane said the $284 billion is the best possible solution considering the deficit and homeland security priorities. “The DOT is treating it as a do-or-die figure,” he said, suggesting President Bush still stands by his threat to veto a bill that exceeds that amount.
The administration plan addresses intermodal freight projects, with funds targeted towards high priority gateways and corridors such as Chicago’s rail network, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the Port of Seattle, where congestion relief is needed.
“If we fail to alleviate congestion in those particular areas, American businesses’ track record of success will be jeopardized,” Shane said in his address.
Shane said the DOT has a renewed “commitment to make freight and the capacity of the intermodal supply chain a cornerstone of (Secretary Norman Mineta’s) second-term agenda.”
The bill includes enough funding to address the nation’s needs if new policy tools to help address capacity issues, including permission for states to set up more toll roads, tax incentives and expanded use of innovative financing schemes to encourage private sector operators to invest in more capacity, remain in the bill, he said.
The American Trucking Associations (ATA) is trying to get Congress to include financial incentives for motor carriers to buy Class 8 trucks in 2007, when new clean-burning diesel engines are required in all new vehicles, and prevent a boom-bust cycle for manufacturers, General Counsel Richard Holcomb noted.
Large trucking companies are expected to pre-buy many 2006-model trucks and then hold off on replacement purchases as long as possible because the newer trucks are projected to be more expensive, less fuel efficient and less reliable. In 2003, when the last Environmental Protection Agency rules requiring a new diesel engine technology went into affect, manufacturers ramped up production to meet the huge demand for 2002 engines before the October changeover deadline and then saw sales plummet in the following months as truckers sat on their hands waiting to see how the engines performed before investing in new tractors.
The ATA opposes measures that would require truckers to use dedicated truck toll lanes, such as one proposed for a long section of I-81 in Virginia. Tolls, especially a proposal for a 37-cent per mile fee, would force truckers operating on margins of about 4 cents per mile to divert to Route 29.
Holcomb said manufactures along the Shenandoah Valley are opposed to the scheme because it will impact their delivery times as truckers take to slower routes to avoid the toll.
As for the reauthorization package, Holcomb said $322 billion is needed just to maintain the current highway system and $450 billion to expand infrastructure to meet demand.
The “$284 billion might be sufficient if all the money went for the purpose it was intended” instead of pork barrel projects such as bike paths and railway museums, he said.
“None of us want a seventh extension of TEA-21,” said Annette Sandberg, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Administration.
“I think we are now getting to the point — whatever the bill they do is fine by us,” Leo Penne, program director for intermodal and industry activities, for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials said, summarizing the general frustration in all quarters with the slow reauthorization process.
Meanwhile, inflation is slowly eroding the buying power of the 18.3 cent-per-gasoline tax that was last raised in 1993, he added. By 2010 the value of the money collected in the highway trust fund for projects will decline to about 12.2 cents per gallon in constant dollars.