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No "magic wand" to fund infrastructure, U.S. Chamber of Commerce says

Drew Preston, manager of congressional and public affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,said the Highway Trust Fund is "only really the tip of the budgetary iceberg." (The Trucker: LYNDON FINNEY)

By APILLE HANSON
The Trucker Staff

8/22/2013

DALLAS — While Drew Preston, manager of congressional and public affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, tried to be positive on the future of infrastructure funding, he was frank: “I’m sorry I don’t have a magic wand to help.”

Preston, along with moderator Tom Lehner, vice president of public policy, the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association, gave a dismal view during “The Future of Our Nation’s Infrastructure and What it Means for Trucking and the Economy,” discussion at the fourth annual Commercial Vehicle Outlook Conference here Thursday.

The overall theme: there are major infrastructure problems and funding, somehow, is needed to fix it. The Highway Trust Fund – which finances the country’s interstate system and other transportation infrastructure investments – has been funded through taxes on gas and diesel fuel. However, with the presidential administration’s tough stance on environmental protection and society’s desire for more fuel-efficient vehicles, the fund has dwindled. It currently spends $15 billion more than its revenue.

However, as Preston pointed out, “it’s only really the tip of the budgetary iceberg awaiting us this fall … it’s going to take compromise which is sadly in short supply these days.”

While supporting the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) legislation, which was signed in July 2012, it only lasts two years and is not a viable long-term solution, Preston said.

The first and age-old option Preston said is using gas and diesel taxes to help sustain it.

“Politically however … no one, Republicans, Democrats, House, Senate, the White House are ready to step up and lead,” Preston said, adding however that trucking companies showing support for at least this type of legislation will help for longer-lasting legislation in the future.

“Trucking [industry members] will need to be at those tables to help [political leaders] stay rooted in business reality … What we need to hear from you is how it’s helping your business.  Trucking also has to come up with plans B and C in case our desired funding doesn’t work.”

“The point is, as long as the overall pie is not growing funding, it’s going to have to come from cuts from something else. We’re making the same argument as,” other lobbying groups for issues such as education, Preston added. “Transportation makes up 2 to 3 percent of the federal budget. If we want more money, we don’t need to just advocate for transportation, but tax reform … things that are eating at the bigger piece of the pie.”

Another option Preston stressed was the use of more public-private partnerships to fund infrastructure projects. Preston reiterated what the Chamber announced at the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure at the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 13 – it is willing to invest in private capital, pumping as much as $250 billion into infrastructure projects.

“The Chamber feels it’s sort of a priority to get more private money to fill this gap,” Preston said. “The problem politically it creates … there are plenty of folks on Capitol Hill who think, ‘Oh great, the federal government can get out of the business of paying for this stuff … and that’s not how it works.”

In order for private companies to make the commitment to infrastructure, there has to be incentive.

“These are private companies. They expect return on that money, it’s not a gift,” Preston said. “They expect money from that investment. They’re looking for safe, long-term investments.”

Preston pointed out that each state has different needs from public-private partnerships, which creates “a big question mark about what the federal government’s role is in public-private partnerships.”

Lehner, with the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association, addressed several questions from the audience, one of which being foreseeable future funds for trucking companies that invest in Natural Gas initiatives, such as fueling stations.

“The general funding outlook,” Preston said with a laugh, “You’re going to run up against the same problems we’re up against … the federal government willing to kick money into this kind of stuff.”

Lehner also touched on the need for funding for bridges in particular.

“There’s an old saying that Congress does two things very well: nothing and over-reacting,” Lehner said. “There are roughly 600,000 bridges in the United States … 150,000 have been deemed structurally deficient, meaning they need replacement. The average age of a bridge is 43 years old. $140 billion is estimated just for starters to begin the process,” of replacements.

Citing recent structural damage to bridges such as the Interstate 5 Skagit River bridge in Washington state, Lehner said that congress should be “over-reacting.”

“We’re getting to the point where we’re the greatest country in the world, but we have third world bridges. These are literally bridges to nowhere,” Lehner said. “Why can’t we as a country replace these types of roads and bridges with efficiency and speed that made us the greatest country in the first place?”

Preston pointed out on the positive side that there are new, up-and-coming engineers that are working to make bridges more structurally sound. However, funding is what’s need for current struggling bridges, Preston said.

“It will take a bridge falling every week before they realize this is something we need to look at,” Preston said. “Unfortunately it’s going to take a lot more of these incidents before they wake up. Wait until one of these giant dams pops open; there will be loss of life, loss of money … but I am starting to seeing greater recognition, almost seeing universal recognition that this is a real problem.”

On a final note, Lehner reiterated that need for truckers, carriers and other industry professionals to actively participate in discussions on future infrastructure funding.

“It’s so very important for all of you to participate in your trade organizations to weigh in when they have these meeting and conferences in Washington,” D.C., Lehner said. “There aren’t any magic solutions to these problems. There are some bright spots on the horizon, but it’s going to take a lot of work to get there.”

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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