ATA’s Chris Spear: New Fuel Tax Remains Most Viable Way to Fund Infrastructure

Chris Spear
Chris Spear by Jim Stinson/Transport Topics

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INDIANAPOLIS — A day before he was to go to Congress to testify about new highway funding, American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear spoke of his hope that President Donald Trump would push harder for a new $2 trillion infrastructure bill.

The rub has been how to pay for it, Spear told attendees at a June 11 breakfast meeting held by the ATA’s National Accounting and Finance Council at its annual conference here.

SPEAR TESTIFYING JUNE 12: House subcommittee hearing at 10 a.m. EDT

But complicating matters further is the latest fracas between Trump and congressional Democrats, Spear said. On May 22, Trump didn’t even sit down with Democrats when they came to the West Wing, he noted.

Instead, Trump walked into the room and told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) he would not negotiate on infrastructure as long as the Democrats continued their investigations of him. That put the infrastructure bill on hold.

“It’s on life support,” Spear said of ATA’s top priority. “I would not call it dead. I think this president has proven time and time again his ability to shift course in a few characters.”

The reference to Trump’s Twitter proclamations brought chuckles from the audience.

But mostly, Spear was not playing for laughs. He expressed real frustration with Washington’s inability to fund highways and other public goods necessary for infrastructure. He also criticized alternative proposals to pay for new infrastructure.

“We will continue to advocate immediate passage of a robust infrastructure bill and that it be funded with real money, not fake funding,” Spear said. “Like these P3s — public-private partnerships — tolling, asset recycling. All these hare-brained ideas that have been floated over the last couple of years. We have been very bullish, very aggressive in knocking a lot of that down.”

Spear said the best and most immediate way to fund roads and bridges is to raise the user fees, or fuel taxes, which already have a system to collect the tax with the lowest cost of administration.

“We believe it is the best, conservative, immediate way to fund infrastructure,” he said. “When I say conservative, less than 1 cent on the dollar to administer it, whereas tolling can take up to 35 cents on the dollar. That’s not conservative. … And we are basically tolling roads that we, as an industry, have already paid for.”

Spear said trucks pay half the road taxes and tolls, even though they account for only 4% of road users.

ATA favors the Build America Fund, which would be backed by a 20-cents-per-gallon fee incorporated into the price of transportation fuels, gathered at the terminal rack, at 5 cents per year over four years.

Spear said there are no other feasible proposals to improve national infrastructure.

The new tax would add $340 billion in new money to fund infrastructure over 10 years.

“That’s real money,” he said. “It goes immediately into the [Highway] Trust Fund, which is set to go broke in a year and half.”

Spear, who told the audience he was a conservative Republican, said “no new taxes” pledges, applied to fuel taxes, are hurting efforts to repair roads.

“I know it rubs some wrong, particularly conservatives who have taken these ‘no new revenue’ pledges,” said Spear. “It really is about political ideology. It is about not having to take tough votes. It is also suffocating our nation’s ability to invest in its future. ... Roads and bridges are not political.”

The Democrats also got an earful from Spear, he said. Pelosi invited Spear to speak at a recent retreat, a rare invitation from House Democrats.

Spear said he was surprised when the main concern House Democrats raised was that Trump would grab credit for any new accomplishment.

“I looked at them and went, ‘Are you serious? He takes credit for everything, even things he didn’t do,’ ” said Spear, getting more chuckles from the audience. “[Democrats] need to step up and own this. ... The problem with this issue is that [Democrats] have not passed anything in so long, [they] have forgotten how to take credit for something.”

Pelosi later told Spear she appreciated his candor.

Spear showed the audience how ATA is pressuring elected officials. He ran the federation’s television ad that highlights the human costs of road congestion. Spear said ATA raised millions from companies and trade unions to run the ad.

The ad buys targeted areas where the president was staying, including Palm Beach, Fla. Republican congressmen have told Spear they don’t want the ad to run in their districts, Spear said.

He noted the average metro Washington driver alone averages 155 hours sitting in traffic per year. And the trucking industry loses $74.5 billion a year, as rigs idle in traffic.

State affiliates of ATA often come to Capitol Hill to meet with their senators and representatives, Spear said, noting Indiana’s industry representatives will be coming soon.

Spear said he tells state affiliates to convince their federal officials each and every time they spot them.

“I tell them the same thing as I tell them when [federal officials] are back in their district,” he said. “Do not leave the room without making an ask. Our industry thrives on sales. This is all about sales. It’s making certain we ask them for their support. … Don’t let them off the hook. They work for you.”