When it comes to understanding highway problems, trucking usually gets it before the general public. That was made clear at last month’s Infrastructure for the Future summit in Washington, D.C., put on by American Highway Users Alliance and The Volvo Group.
The congressional members and association representatives who spoke were well-informed, but it was particularly refreshing to hear Joe Cowan, CEO of Baltimore-based Cowan Systems, lay it on the line from a driver/fleet perspective.
Imagine what life is like for a driver who constantly deals with rush-hour gridlock and similar conditions daily, he said.
“We have got to do something about making this a pleasant job,” he said, noting that the stress of driving on sub-standard highways contributes to the driver shortage. “The first place you start is our infrastructure.”
One primary problem with road and bridge improvements and expansions is that the Highway Trust Fund is going broke. Congress has passed stopgap measures for years to sustain the fund, but expenditures still exceed receipts by $15 billion a year.
There has been less driving in recent years, so per-gallon-based tax revenue has declined. Also, the federal fuel tax hasn’t been raised in 20 years. As California Sen. Barbara Boxer told the summit, the fund will be empty by 2015, following the expiration of the highway bill at the end of 2014, unless action is taken.
Suppose there had been a 20 cents per gallon tax hike years ago, Cowan suggested. Not only would it have improved the infrastructure, it would’ve created thousands of jobs directly and indirectly. “In the end, we’re going to pay twice as much instead of what we could’ve paid,” he said.
Trucking, though, never stopped increasing its share of infrastructure funding. In 2001, one tractor-trailer paid $8,050 a year in taxes and fees to operate within Maryland, Cowan said. Now it costs $19,350.
“What do I get in exchange for that? I don’t get anything. Passenger cars got a free ride … The system’s broken.”
The transportation industry’s complaints “fall on deaf ears,” Cowan said. “It has to be more of a public outcry: I’ve had enough of driving 10 miles and it taking me an hour. I’ve had enough of wasting fuel.”
That outcry appears to be only at whimper level. Some states, such as Virginia, have taken matters more into their own hands. Fed up with inaction and excessive red tape at the federal level, they’ve made good strides in fixing their highways.
Infrastructure solutions based solely on states aren’t the best approach, as Cowan and other speakers argued, due to the complexities of the national highway system. Still, given the sluggishness of the federal government and its obsession with more voter-friendly benefits, like health care, I’d bet state initiatives might be the best we can get in the near future.