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Election 2020: Road ahead for trucking infrastructure hinges on Nov. 3

Outcome of 2020 presidential, congressional elections will chart direction of critical highway funding

Election will set path for highway capacity. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

With odds “more likely than not,” according to political analysts, that the U.S. Senate will follow the political party of the presidential ticket in the wake of next week’s election, issues critical to the trucking industry face divergent paths depending on who wins the White House.

Highway infrastructure is at the top of that list.

“It’s not just about the election, it’s also about control of the Senate and the relative balance in the House,” Jeff Davis, senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, told FreightWaves. “In essence, if the Senate and White House go the same way, there’s going to be a massive difference in priorities over surface transportation.”

Now that Congress has failed to negotiate a long-term highway bill — relying instead on a one-year extension — infrastructure is likely to be a priority in 2021. What that plan looks like and who will benefit will be directly affected by a Trump or Biden win on Nov. 3.

“An infrastructure bill negotiated under a Democratic trifecta [control of both houses of Congress and winning the White House] will include significantly higher spending for mass transit and rail versus a more fiscally constrained and more highway-focused bill if Trump is reelected,” Davis predicts, taking cues from the Democrat’s version of the highway bill this past summer combined with priorities laid out in Joe Biden’s presidential platform.

“A growing contingent of the Democratic Party doesn’t want any new highway capacity,” according to Davis. “The anti-sprawl, anti-highway contingency on the left is continuing to grow in power — that’s one of the reasons that the state DOTs didn’t endorse the Democratic infrastructure bill in the House, because it was too anti-highway for a critical number of the states.”

35 states where U.S. Senate seats are up for election

Red = projected to remain Republican. Blue = projected to remain Democrat. Purple = competitive. Gray = no race.
Source: ARTBA

David Owen, president of the National Association of Small Trucking Companies, a for-profit association representing roughly 14,000 companies, pays close attention to how the two parties prioritize projects.

“All my guys are full-truckload, long-haul trucking companies and 90% of their miles are on the interstate highways,” Owen told FreightWaves. “So our concern is putting dollars in bridges and overpasses and exit ramps and keeping those arteries going. I would suggest that the failure of the federal government to take care of the interstates has probably cost more lives safety-wise than any other issue. I think more people get killed in construction zones than anywhere else on the interstate.”

Committee leadership changes

Changes in congressional power also mean changes in the committee leaders who steer the course of legislation and how it gets funded. The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), which tracks changes in committee leadership, points out that Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, and Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, are not up for reelection.

However, ARTBA notes that other key Senate committees where Republican leads will change include:

  • Budget: Mike Enzi (Wyoming) — retiring
  • Energy & Natural Resources: Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — term-limited by committee
  • Finance, which oversees the Highway Trust Fund (HTF): Chuck Grassley (Iowa) — term-limited by committee
  • Health, Education, Labor & Pensions: Lamar Alexander (Tennessee) — retiring

In addition, a leadership vacancy could open on the Senate Banking Committee, which is charged with writing sections of the highway bill.

In the House, Reps. Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, and Kevin Brady, R-Texas, are expected to remain chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Ways & Means Committee, which is responsible for any potential revenue fix for the HTF.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-New York, is retiring from the House Appropriations Committee. According to ARTBA, Reps. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, and Debbie Wasserman Schulz, D-Florida, are campaigning to fill the slot.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, the current chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, is in an unusually tight race. If Biden wins the White House but DeFazio loses, it could be meaningful for the next highway bill, where DeFazio has been considered one of its biggest champions.

“Remember that DeFazio’s district is more rural and more pro-highway than almost any Democratic districts, so it’s more likely that the person who takes his place on the committee will be anti-highway,” Davis speculated.

Executive branch priorities

In addition to Congress, the executive branch can prioritize project funding. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) under President Donald Trump has made a point of emphasizing infrastructure projects in rural areas versus those in urban areas — the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) Initiative being the prime example.

“[The Trump administration] has been pretty transparent in their desire to invest very heavily in rural infrastructure,” Elaine Nessle, executive director of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC), told FreightWaves. “Of course there are freight projects located in rural parts of the country, but there are a lot of very significant freight projects located in more urban areas, and the federal dollar has the ability to go pretty far in those areas.”

Nessle said she would expect such a dynamic to change under a Biden administration. “Also, Senator [and Biden running mate Kamala] Harris is from California, and she knows what an economic engine freight movement is for the state. I think a renewed focus on that could be really helpful for all of the significant freight hubs and corridors across the country.”

CAGTC, a major proponent of DOT’s Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) and Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) discretionary grant programs, will likely continue to be funded under Biden or Trump, Nessle said.

“The difference will come down to where the money ends up going. The BUILD program has a lot more flexibility, so it could be interesting to see the types of programs that a Biden administration might select. I think we would definitely see more emphasis on infrastructure that has more ‘green’ elements to it that are important to his party.”

Technology forward

While both Democrats and Republicans emphasize technology in their infrastructure legislation — green technologies for Democrats, automation for Republicans — highlighting private-sector innovation in an infrastructure package would be a smart move no matter who wins the election, contends Norman Anderson, CEO of consultancy CG/LA Infrastructure. “The technology piece is unavoidable,” Anderson told FreightWaves.

Anderson, whom Trump named to advise and prioritize infrastructure projects in 2018, said the “Green New Deal” supported by Democrats will need the private sector to kickstart infrastructure investment in hydrogen fueling. At the same time, they shouldn’t abandon the streamlining of regulations — a priority for Republicans — to allow such investment to actually work.

“The public sector has to be agile and encourage innovation,” Anderson said. “So the question really becomes, is the government going to be roadkill on the digital superhighway or is it going to facilitate the process?”

Inside the Election 2020 series

Oct. 26: Road ahead for trucking infrastructure hinges on Nov. 3

Oct. 27: OOIDA says Trump a net positive for small-business truckers

Oct. 27: Infrastructure, legal battles among top issues for ATA, TCA

Oct. 28: Survey: Truckers largely plan to vote in person on Nov. 3

Oct. 28: What the US presidential election could mean for trade with Mexico

Oct. 29: Truckers rate Trump on transportation, trade issues

Oct. 29: Economy is runaway top issue in carrier survey

Oct. 30: Is Canada ready for an U.S. administration change?

Oct. 30: In 2016, Trump promised trucking things would change. Have they?

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.