President's budget strong on transportation, with a catch

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | Thursday, April 11, 2013

President Obama’s proposed budget shows the administration’s commitment to funding transportation and infrastructure. But while the numbers look good for roads and bridges over the short term, critics say the document lacks a long-term funding solution and gets off track in areas such as sharing highway money with rail and expanding the cross-border trucking program.

Traditionally, a presidential budget request is a wish list, and the one President Obama delivered on Wednesday, April 10, is no exception.

The wish list calls for an immediate $50 billion in upfront spending for structurally deficient bridges and other needs. It also calls on private investment through the proposed creation of a national infrastructure bank and new bonding programs for transportation projects.

Truckers may or may not agree with the approaches. Critics in Congress have already called the budget request dead on arrival, which is not uncommon for any presidential budget request.

“It’s a political document more than anything else. It highlights where the priorities are for the administration on various things,” says Ryan Bowley, director of legislative affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

“You have to give the president credit for directing attention to the problems we’re having with the nation’s infrastructure,” Bowley said. “The challenge is, he doesn’t really address them. There’s no long-term funding solution in the proposal beyond a shell game with numbers. We need a long-term solution.”

Without a strong federal plan for highway and bridge funding, states will be left up to their own devices to find the funding, and that could lead to more tolling and public-private partnerships for infrastructure, Bowley said.

“The president didn’t propose massive privatization of our highway system. That said, if we don’t get a long-term funding solution at the federal level, more states are going to turn to tolling and public-private partnerships to get their money,” Bowley said.

House and Senate budget leaders released their own requests in mid-March. They differ from one another and each is different from the president’s request.

The Obama request, to no one’s surprise, is big on high-speed rail. One part of the request calls for the Highway Trust Fund to be converted to a “Transportation Trust Fund,” whereupon tax money paid by highway users including truckers could be used to fund high-speed rail and other projects.

High-speed rail is a nonstarter in the House budget request from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI.

“Yes, (President Obama) may be asking for X amount of dollars for high speed rail, but he’s not going to get that,” said OOIDA Director of Government Affairs Laura O’Neill in an interview with “Land Line Now” on Wednesday.

“In future bills moving forward with the Congress, he’s going try to advance his priorities for high-speed rail and look for other opportunities.”

O’Neill points out a contentious issue in the trucking community that is getting attention in the Obama budget request, namely the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s cross-border trucking pilot program with Mexico. Under the program, Mexico-domiciled motor carriers can apply and obtain U.S. operating authority to haul freight beyond the 20-mile border zone.

As things stood this past February, just 17 trucks and 20 drivers from Mexico were participating, and one motor carrier made 70 percent of the trips.

The Obama budget calls for boosting the program.

O’Neill said the budget request calls for nearly $144 million into strengthening cross-border transportation, with money specifically to address a multiyear cross-border trucking program.

“This is very much on the mind of the Obama administration to push forward the cross-border trucking program, and revamp it, and continue to invest in it – even though as we had stated it was dying on the vine because of attrition and because it seems like nobody wants to participate in this program,” she said.

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