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February 13, 2017 3:45 AM, EST

ATA Infrastructure Group Urges Action on Funding

U.S. Department of Transportation

This story appears in the Feb. 13 print edition of Transport Topics.

WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and congressional leaders were urged to take bold action to solve the nation’s long-standing shortfall in infrastructure development during meetings with American Trucking Associations’ Infrastructure Task Force.

The delegation convened Feb. 7-8 to speak with policymakers about how better roads and bridges can help broadly improve the country and the movement of freight and in- sisted that politicians can no longer afford to postpone critical decisions on funding.

“We have a significant stake in this issue, and we’re going to help get a bill across the finish line,” ATA President Chris Spear said. “Rebuilding infrastructure is not just important to us [in trucking] but to all Americans, and I can’t think of anyone better to speak about this than those in trucking.”

Spear said he thinks there definitely will be a $1 trillion infrastructure program and that about one-third of that spending will go to road and bridge work. He said he expects the administration will provide a general framework for the program and that relevant House and Senate committees will fill in crucial details.

“There is a massive need for this investment,” Spear said, “but it will pay off several times over.”

“I’m confident we’ll get a long-term, sustainable solution to our nation’s infrastructure crisis,” said truckload executive Jim Burg of James Burg Trucking Co., a co-chairman of the task force.

While he walked the corridors of congressional office buildings with his partner co-chairman, David Congdon of less-than-truckload carrier Old Dominion Freight Line, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee heard testimony from state transportation officials about public-private partnerships — a funding strategy that often uses tolls to generate revenue to repay private investors for road construction. It also means legislators avoid raising taxes.

But trucking continues to advocate against a large web of new tolled roads.

Congdon said that he, Burg and others from ATA met with House and Senate members from tax-writing and transportation funding committees.

The meetings were “the first round” for the delegation, they said, and with respect to funding, “everything is still on the table.” Asked to explain their optimism on why a major transportation plan might be workable now, they expressed confidence in President Trump.

“I believe we have a leader in Donald Trump who will work for the people of the United States. He has a strong conviction,” Congdon said.

At the Senate EPW hearing, representatives from rural regions spoke of funding concerns. Committee leaders also rejected the Trump administration’s claim that private-sector capital fueled by tax breaks would be enough to help transportation agencies modernize crumbling roadways and bridges.

The senators on the panel, which handles surface transportation, agreed that projects funded primarily with private money don’t work well for states and cities outside of large urban regions.

“Funding solutions that involve public-private partnerships, as has been discussed by administration officials, may be innovative solutions for crumbling inner cities but do not work for rural areas,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the committee, said Feb. 8.

Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said Congress could borrow a page from states that have approved increases in their fuel taxes, such as Wyoming and New Jersey.

“You can make tough decisions for funding that people will forgive politicians for if they actually are convinced it’s going to meet a real need that they face every day,” Carper told reporters after the hearing.

Carper said he anticipates unveiling a highway funding plan that would rely on myriad options, including raising taxes on fuel. Republican leaders, who have usually rejected raising diesel and gasoline taxes, have yet to say when they intend to unveil a long-term funding measure for infrastructure projects.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.) was praised by committee members after he said the country’s infrastructure is in crisis.

“We are the richest country in the history of the world. We used to, Mr. Chairman, lead the world in infrastructure. We were No. 1. That is no longer the case. We are now behind many, many other countries, and the result of that is the loss of produc- tivity,” Sanders said.

State transportation officials, however, also criticized infrastructure projects backed primarily by public-private partnerships, also known as P3s.

“P3s and other kinds of borrowing don’t work in Wyoming. It doesn’t work in rural states because we simply do not have the revenue generation to support that kind of thing,” said Bill Panos, director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

The EPW hearing marked the second time this month that congressional transportation leaders shot down potential benefits associated with P3s. The first was on Feb. 1 by the House Transportation and Infrastructure panel.

The Trump administration has not indicated when it would unveil an infrastructure funding proposal. During the campaign, Trump pledged to provide Congress with one during his first 100 days in office, which ends April 30.