Election Key to Road Funds

Privatization, Tax Reform Agenda at Stake

This story appears in the Nov. 7 print edition of Transport Topics.

When Americans cast their ballots for president and members of Congress, they also will help to determine the outlook for the country’s highway funding that is so critical to freight movement.

Transportation, infrastructure and even trucking, for that matter, have been issues hardly mentioned this year by nearly every candidate seeking national office. Yet, the fix for long-term funding for freight and highway projects will differ based on who is elected Nov. 8, congressional and transportation observers said.

ELECTION SCOREBOARD: Races of interest to trucking

In the few details they have provided, the presidential candidates for the Republicans, Donald Trump, and Democrats, Hillary Clinton, offer unique approaches for funding infrastructure. And their administrations beginning in January would require assistance from transportation leaders on Capitol Hill, but several of them are fighting to keep their congressional seats.

Bill Sullivan, the head of advocacy at American Trucking Associations, expressed optimism that the new administration and Congress will realize a fix for infrastructure funding.

“Since both presidential candidates have recognized the need to address our mounting infrastructure funding crisis, and unlike other issues such as health care where our politicians have become inflexible and entrenched, we are hopeful that regardless of the results on Nov. 8, Congress and the new administration will be able to break through the gridlock and logjams that have plagued Washington and address transportation, and freight-related issues,” Sullivan told Transport Topics on Nov. 3.

Republicans, who have a governing majority in the U.S. House and Senate, have pledged to establish a sustainable funding source through tax reform that would ensure the solvency of the federal Highway Trust Fund. In the event they hold on to the majority in both chambers, and Trump is elected, the Republican leadership has indicated they would proceed to overhaul the tax code to boost highway funding.

Trump announced he would promote legislation that would provide $1 trillion for infrastructure spending over a decade primarily through adopting public-private partnerships. He has hardly mentioned freight, and has been vague on details to reach the $1 trillion mark. But Republican leaders in the House said they would advance measures designed to improve freight connectivity.

The road to achieving a long-term highway funding fix is a tad more complicated for Democrats, according to transportation observers. If Clinton is elected, she would benefit if her party also secures a majority in either or both chambers. Political prognosticators, such as the Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report, predict the Senate is likely to switch to a Democratic-led majority while the House retains GOP rule.

Groups, such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted that support from a Senate that is friendly to her positions would help Clinton advance her $275 billion, five-year infrastructure plan. Clinton’s plan would rely on reforms of corporate taxes. Federal funding authority for highway programs expires in fiscal 2020.

Ken Orski, a transportation expert monitoring national and state policy for several decades, told TT that legislative gridlock over the next two years is highly likely.

“I don’t expect major shifts in transportation funding irrespective of who wins the White House and, even if some of the current Senate and House transportation leaders lose their seats. In either case, a Republican-led House will exercise a moderating influence on the level of spending,” Orski added.

Defeats to congressional transportation leaders would affect highway funding discussions over the next two years. House Transportation and Infrastructure panel Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is up against Art Halvorson, a formidable tea party challenger who almost defeated Shuster in the primary. House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) is struggling to shake off Democrat Michael Eggman, and former transportation committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) has met his match in Democratic newcomer Stephanie Murphy, who is garnering momentum.

These incumbents have promoted a freight agendum during their careers welcomed by the trucking industry. Their challengers have not outlined plans concerning freight, trucking and infrastructure funding.

Infrastructure proponents bemoan the lack of debate among candidates about the need to fund new roadways and freight corridors meant to enhance commerce.

“Our failing infrastructure is an embarrassment for our nation,” said Jay Timmons, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. “Manufacturers want to make sure that money is not wasted and lawmakers tackle the real problem so we can build world-class, 21st-century infrastructure.”