Understatement: A $500 billion highway bill would affect trucking

| 3/13/2009

The chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee says the next surface transportation authorization bill could top $500 billion.

Such a large piece of legislation – with a potential to be the largest transportation bill in history – should motivate truckers to let lawmakers know how they feel about it, officials with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, is optimistic that congressional committees will be hammering out details of the authorization bill come May or June. The current transportation policy and funding law known as SAFETEA-LU is due to expire in September.

Oberstar has repeatedly stated, including in a 2008 interview with Land Line, that the Highway Trust Fund and the federal tax on motor fuels will remain the cornerstone of the next era of transportation funding.

However, Oberstar and other powerful lawmakers, lobbyists and stakeholders say traditional funding methods are barely keeping up with SAFETEA-LU’s 2005 authorization of $286.5 billion.

Consensus is that the next authorization period will require new funding sources, and that translates to higher taxes for the end user.

OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Joyce says truckers should be arming themselves with information so their sector of the industry is not ignored or taken advantage of.

“This is the big bill. This is one of those bills that will absolutely, positively, hands down, have impacts on truckers,” Joyce told Land Line.

“Truckers need to be vocal. We need all the dogs out on the porch barking, and we need to wake up the neighborhood. We need to let them know that truckers are paying their fair share, and when other industries including the rail industry are indicating otherwise, we will debate them vigorously.”

Joyce said Congress and stakeholders will spend the most time on how to fund the next few years of transportation.

“There are recommendations on increasing the fuel tax,” Joyce said. “There are recommendations to move towards a vehicle-miles tax. I don’t think that’s imminent. There are hurdles with a VMT and a huge cost burden. But we’ve had two commissions recommend it. The secretary and the president are certainly aware of it.”

History shows that the next highway authorization bill, sometimes called a “reauthorization,” will take time to debate, especially because of its size.

SAFETEA-LU was supposed to be debated and passed in 2003, but did not come into effect until August 2005. The previous bill, TEA-21, also took time to pass and was $207 billion in size.

When delays occur in debate and in passage of an authorization bill, Congress takes interim measures to keep money flowing to transportation.

“Those of us who have lived through previous authorization bills have a keen understanding of the fact that it takes both the House, the House T&I Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee as well as three committees on the Senate side to pass the legislation,” Joyce said.

Since SAFETEA-LU’s passage, the administration has changed from a Republican White House and Congress to a Democratic president and congressional control.

Joyce says the time is right to get involved.

“The voice of small business truckers will be heard, but there are a whole lot of detractors out there who will try to hurt that for us as well,” Joyce said. “We need all small-business truckers out there – and we’d like them all to be OOIDA members – to voice a collective opinion with those key committees and all members of Congress.”

– By David Tanner, staff writer

Editor’s note: If you wish to contact your federal lawmakers but aren’t sure who they are, call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and have your Zip Code handy, or call OOIDA at 800-444-5791 and someone will look up the information for you.