Three small business executives spoke Thursday during a call organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about how the nation’s infrastructure impacts their companies.
The majority of small businesses view highways and local roads and bridges as important to the success of their companies, but they don’t rate those segments of infrastructure to be in good quality, according to the first-quarter MetLife & U.S. Chamber of Commerce Small Business Index released last month.
The index found 62 percent of respondents said local roads and bridges are of average, poor or very poor quality, and 52 percent said the same about highways. Only 10 percent said local roads and bridges are of very good quality, and 13 percent said highways are of very good quality.
Nearly four-fifths of respondents — 79 percent — said local roads and bridges are at least moderately important to their success, and 74 percent said the same about highways.
With Congress working on an infrastructure package, several small business executives voiced concerns about the nation’s infrastructure on Thursday in a call organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“I personally think it’s past time we did this maintenance,” said Daniel Speer, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Case Design Remodeling. “But right now we’ve got some urgent things going on in our backyard and quite frankly it’s not only frustrating and stressful, but it’s embarrassing when we have people coming from other countries … to one of the most powerful countries in the world that has failing infrastructure.”
He said the state of the infrastructure results in high fleet-maintenance costs and hurts the overall bottom line of his company, which has about 150 employees and 75 vehicles on the road.
“We have to keep two or three extra vehicles in our lot that are ready to be used as a result of the fact that we just don’t know when somebody’s going to get that broken axle or flat tire or get in that accident and we have to have a vehicle to be able to keep doing business,” he said.
Speer also said the infrastructure leads to congestion issues, citing a time it took him more than six hours to visit three job sites that were located about 20 miles apart.
Congestion is also a problem for Jim Jalbert, president and owner of New Hampshire’s C&J Bus Lines, which operates a scheduled intercity passenger bus service with destinations including Boston’s Logan Airport and New York City’s Port Authority.
“From our perspective, we run a scheduled bus line and because of that of congestion in and out of Boston, we’ll have to add additional equipment and manpower to satisfy schedule turns,” Jalbert said. “If we know traffic and congestion is at a peak, we have to put extra buses out in the system to make sure that the bus that’s heading into Boston leaves correct on time. That’s really critical to us.”
Overall, though, they said employee safety is their biggest concern.
Karen Olson Beenken, president and CEO of Montana’s beverage distribution company Blue Rock Companies, said her company has 120 employees and 93 vehicles, 40 of which are Department of Transportation licensed, that cover about 1 million miles of road annually. She said products are stacked in their vehicles, which can come loose and pose a safety hazard for drivers.
“If they’ve had a rough road to go over, that product can come loose,” she said. “We have it tightly wrapped, but I’ve seen bad examples of a really bad road, potholes or rugged terrain and they open the bay door and product starts falling out. Then we have a safety issue if the product lands on them.”
Jalbert said an increased federal gas tax should help pay for the infrastructure improvements. The tax has remained stagnant since 1993 at 18.4 cents per gallon for fuel and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel without an index for inflation.
During a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on March 27, Treasury Secretary Elaine Chao said “nothing is off the table” when it comes to funding surface infrastructure investment.
“It is unfair for every citizen in this country to pay money out of the general fund to support infrastructure. It should be paid in the form of user fees,” Jalbert said. “Again, I say this knowing it’s going to cost us more money, but I think that’s critical if we’re going to move people, goods and services in a safe and efficient and an environmentally friendly manner.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports raising the federal gas tax 5 cents a year over a five-year period, said the Chamber’s Vice President of Transportation Infrastructure Policy Ed Mortimer, who said the increase “is a necessary start to not just fix the assets we have but to modernize.”
Mortimer also said surpluses in trust funds should be used to invest in airports, waterways and harbor maintenance.
“It’s going to take a variety of sources. While the gas tax seems to get a lot of the attention, that’s only part of it,” he said. “The Chamber also supports trying to bring in more private investment and trying to come up with a toolkit of options so private sponsors can figure out what are the best ways to fund and finance their projects.”
Other aspects of the Chamber’s four-point plan for Congress to address in infrastructure include more regulatory certainty in the permitting process and a workforce development program, Mortimer said.
“The key is making sure that there’s investments at all levels of government, but the federal government needs to start,” Mortimer said. “The Constitution calls for the federal government to do two things: national defense and interstate commerce, so there’s a vital national need to get this done and we believe this is the year to get it done.”