Friday, May 20, 2011

For what we pay, we deserve the best

With the White House reluctant to raise fuel taxes, the question on a lot of people’s minds is “how the heck are we going to pay for the next surface transportation bill?”

Is the nation headed for a tax based on vehicle miles traveled, or VMT? We’ve seen headlines recently saying “Forget the fuel tax” and “Mileage tax could replace gas tax.”

But these are just headlines for now, and even though U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood tested the waters by saying we should consider a VMT tax, the president does not appear to be on board. That being said, the administration did include a VMT study in its budget request, and a version of that is being floated in the president’s working draft of the highway bill.

The question I have is, would a VMT tax be a true and proper replacement for the fuel tax, or would it simply be another tax heaped on top of what users already pay?

This is why it’s still premature to get behind a VMT proposal.

If there was a one-for-one switch, and it was seamless, the concept might work, but to this point, we’ve seen no guarantees that it would make the tried and true method obsolete.

I say “tried and true” because the fuel tax has been around since the Eisenhower era and has gotten us this far. While many people claim the fuel tax is not sustainable, it could be, but only as long as the people holding the purse strings and setting policy allow it to happen.
Highway funds have been hijacked for years, but somehow we still have an amazing system. We seem to be outgrowing it, but only because the red-tape, political jargon and raids on the highway fund allow it to happen.

Users do not want to see the highway system crumble and become obsolete, and they are willing to pay their fair share, as they do now, to have good infrastructure.

Early estimates are that a six-year surface transportation bill could cost $550 billion. That has the politicians and policymakers filling our heads about the need for new revenue streams – as long as it doesn’t raise fuel taxes.

Before we talk about paying more, or adding a VMT tax or making every road a toll road, let’s address the diversion and waste first.

If we are truly at a crossroads as people are saying, the hijacking of highway funds for non-highway programs simply cannot continue. If we stop the diversion and still find that we need to pay more for infrastructure, we can sit down like civilized human beings and talk about it.

We have a great system now, built by Americans for Americans, and the users of that system deserve for it to be properly preserved and maintained.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Oregon speeds are a joke

Oregon lawmakers sure do know how to stand out in a crowd. No. I’m not saying you are sure to spot them because they all wear rain ponchos. And I’m not saying you can pick them out wearing their flannel shirts.

I think it is fair to say they stick out like a sore thumb in how they view speed limits.

While the benefits of setting uniform speeds for cars and trucks are being touted in states that include Illinois and Texas, two Oregon state lawmakers released a statement and proclaimed that “Oregon’s speed limit is behind the times.” I could not agree with that comment more.

I might even go as far as to say Oregon’s speed limit is a joke.

Oregon law now authorizes cars to travel 65 mph on rural interstates while trucks are limited to 55 mph – a speed differential of 10 mph.

Unlike efforts in other states to eliminate, or at least reduce, speed differentials, Republican Senators Jason Atkinson of Central Point and Bruce Starr of Hillsboro have announced their intentions to pursue a change that would widen Oregon’s speed gap to 15 mph. If approved, cars could cruise along at 75 mph while trucks could drive 60 mph.

How’s that for standing out in a crowd? Oregon could soon join California as the only states with a 15-mph differential on portions of roadway.

Here is what Sen. Atkinson had to say about the proposed change:

“Oregon is the only state west of the Mississippi with highway and interstate speed limits less than 70 miles per hour (for cars). People have to play by different rules along I-5 and in rural areas when they travel from state to state. Business and commerce suffer as a result.”

I would argue that commerce will continue to suffer. Of course, it would be nice to travel a little faster, but I cannot imagine any safety benefits for truckers and others. It sure doesn’t sound safe trying to navigate around vehicles traveling 15 mph slower than the majority of traffic.

Nevertheless, it appears to be business as usual at the Oregon statehouse. While we have seen more and more states move to eliminate, or at least reduce speed differentials, Oregon is content to be one of a handful of states to mandate at least a 10-mph speed gap between cars and trucks.

Finally, I highlight a comment from Sen. Starr. You would think he supports my argument.

“Oregon is the odd one out when it comes to the nation’s speed limits.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Unfortunately, he is calling for changes that would widen the state’s speed limit differential.

As far as I’m concerned that is a bad joke.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

‘This land is my land’

Photo by Bob Martin
“This land is my land, this land is your land … from California to the New York Island.” Woody Guthrie wrote it; Peter, Paul and Mary recorded my favorite rendition.

Early on in a long trucking career I could see right off that one of the perks in the business was the nontaxable bonus of simply enjoying the scenery as I traveled all over this country. I never got tired of the view.

In all the miles I have driven and places I have seen, I couldn’t help thinking about the songs written about places that I was passing by. I guess part of that comes from being a lifetime fan of folk music, classic country and bluegrass music.

For example, there is a sign for Crowley’s Ridge on I-40 in Arkansas that always reminds me of a line in the song, “Arkansas” by the Osborne Brothers. Then there’s “Kentucky,” the state song of Kentucky – also by the Osbornes.

The list is endless. There’s a few Texas songs, Red Steagall’s “Under the X in Texas” or Marty Robbins’ “Streets of Laredo” and “El Paso.” I can’t drive through Amarillo without “Amarillo by Morning” getting stuck in my head for a while. And remember Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz across Texas” and “Cowtown” songs?

The trucking songs are many. Dick Curless’ “Tombstone Every Mile,” which is about driving the Hainesville Road way up in Maine. It’s just a “ribbon of ice” … he got that right.

I related to Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” except I came back and went again and again. Then there’s Lester Flatt’s “Backin’ to Birmingham” and Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road.” The first few words of “Six Days” are “I pulled out of Pittsburgh.” I can dig it. (Not my favorite city …)

In Florida on I-75 there’s a little sign on a bridge that says Suwannee River, complete with a couple bars and notes.

A number of other mountain passes are mentioned in song, like The Grapevine, Donner Summit, Jacob’s Ladder and the Feather River Canyon. Don’t forget “Black Mountain Rag.” Sometimes I wonder why someone hasn’t been inspired to write a song about the view from that rest area at the top of Cabbage, a mountain pass just east of Pendleton, OR.

My all-time personal favorite experience of song and looking out the windshield came in Montana, the Big Sky Country. You have to see Montana to understand the Big Sky thing. I can’t describe it.

Anyway, one morning, clear blue big sky and I’m rolling along I-90 somewhere around Billings, I think, where you cross the Yellowstone River. At the time my friend Eddie Kilroy was doing a country/Texas honky tonk music radio show on XM from Willie’s Place at Carl’s Corner, TX. I called him and asked him to play Red Steagall’s “Yellowstone Valley.” He did and it gave me duck bumps.  

I can’t leave out the mountain and desert sunrises and sunsets. They are, in a word, spectacular. And they seem to last forever. I usually started my day driving an hour or so before sunrise and I’ve seen a bunch of them. Can’t think of any songs about western sunrises and sunsets, but they do often remind me of a story I’ve heard several times over the years on country music radio. The story goes that Willie Nelson and Roger Miller were driving west in West Texas, admiring the beautiful sunset and Miller said, “Just think what God could do if he had money.”

I am waiting on those lyrics to come out in a song.