Go long! Highway bill to build on reforms, create longer-term stability

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The next highway bill is a big deal, even if it’s not the most exciting of topics. Even though the current highway and funding law does not expire until Sept. 30, lawmakers and stakeholders are already at work drafting the next piece of legislation. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held its first hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 14, with more to follow.

Two things were made perfectly clear during the hearing. First, that the legislation should build on the reforms initiated in MAP-21, the highway law that trucking and other forms of transportation currently live by. And second, that the bill should be five or six years in length, to provide stability to states to plan for and carry out transportation projects.

“We hope to take committee action in the late spring or early summer with the goal to be on the House floor before the August recess,” T&I Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., stated in his remarks.

“We can’t afford to be stuck in the past or we’ll be left behind. We should encourage our federal partners to think outside the box on how to address our transportation challenges. So we need to promote innovation and lay the foundation for emerging technologies.”

Although the Association was not part of the first hearing, OOIDA and truckers continue to work to educate lawmakers and congressional staff on issues important to them. The Association has testified before the committee on numerous occasions and will be engaged in the highway bill process.

Guests for Tuesday’s hearing represented the National Governors Association, Caterpillar Inc., the city of Atlanta, and the Amalgamated Transit Union.

With everyone seemingly in agreement about the need to continue MAP-21’s reforms and get a longer-term highway bill in place, lawmakers are still hard-pressed to come up with a definitive funding solution for it.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the Highway Trust Fund will be broke sometime in 2015 without a new funding source. Fuel taxes and other receipts going into the fund are not keeping up with expenses and inflation.

Tuesday’s hearing did not make any big revelations in the funding department. The role of the private sector, through public-private partnerships, tolling and infrastructure banks, will continue to be debated throughout the process.

Lawmakers and panelists involved in the hearing did not speak of devolution in any high regard. Devolution would involve a reduced federal role, and increased state role, in the transportation system. Most people seemed to agree that a strong federal role makes for the best system.

The highway bill will be about more than just highways. The T&I Committee also has jurisdiction over rail, transit and ports, all of which are vying for a limited amount of money.

Stuart Levenick, group president for Caterpillar Inc., told the committee that 40 percent of Cat’s imports and exports go through Canadian ports as opposed to U.S. ports, based on efficiency and cost. That was troubling for some lawmakers, an eye-opener for others, who said the U.S. must work harder and smarter to regain its global advantages.

Committee member Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., asked what the difference would be between passing a two-year bill – the length of MAP-21 – and getting a five- or six-year bill put in place.

“It makes a difference of tens of millions of dollars at the local level,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said.

“Reducing federal commitments is simply not an option. This would only shift the burden to others to do your part in financing the governmental partnership on surface transportation, which has been developed over more than two generations,” Reed stated in his testimony.

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