Friday, November 22, 2013

Can you spare a dollar?

How many times in our lives have we spent an extra buck on something? Perhaps it was a convenience item we forgot at the supermarket or that we made a choice to buy one brand over another. Perhaps we needed an extra coffee or decided this was our week to win the lottery. Sure, we could have not spent the extra dollar, but we did.

Why did we do it? Because in our minds, the item was worth it at that particular moment. We almost don’t think twice when we buy a bottled soft drink for $1.59 when we could buy a can for 59 cents.

Why, then, do we skip one fueling station and head down the road to another because the posted fuel price is 1 cent cheaper? For a car with a 14-gallon tank, that’s 14 cents if you were running on fumes. Even for a commercial truck needing 150 gallons, 1 cent difference means $1.50 savings. Two cents cheaper would be $3, and so on.

The comparison, and our mindset, demonstrates the difficulty that we, as a nation, face when it comes to paying a little more for the very roads and bridges we drive on every day.

Perhaps we all take for granted that the infrastructure was designed and built decades ago for generations that couldn’t possibly have imagined the technology, the traffic, or the size and weight of today’s trucks that we have now. Obsolete bridges that were designed to carry 5,000 vehicles a day are carrying 20,000. Urban sprawl and commuting have almost gotten out of control.

The point being made here is that eventually we’re all going to be asked to pay more to travel.

Rep. Bill Shuster
chairman of T&I Committee
This week, I was in Washington, D.C. on assignment, covering a summit on infrastructure hosted by the American Highway Users Alliance and Volvo.

Many of transportation’s big players were present as guest speakers or panelists, including Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster. The latter two chair the committees that are largely responsible for writing surface transportation bills.

In fact, it was Boxer who coined the term “MAP-21” for the current two-year bill that passed in 2012, fully titled Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century.

While many people outside the transportation realm may view MAP-21 as a glorified extension of the last bill (SAFETEA-LU) because it did not drum up any new funding or grow the federal transportation program, that’s not entirely accurate.

As Boxer put it during the summit, MAP-21 reformed the federal program, overhauled it and cut a great deal of red tape.

Sen. Barbara Boxer
chair of the EPW Committee
“We did so many of these reforms that now we can just concentrate on the funding for the next bill,” she told the 160 attendees. Boxer is chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Shuster, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says he expects the next highway bill to be drafted in the spring of 2014, building in some time to work out any differences between House and Senate versions by MAP-21’s expiration date on Sept. 30.

While lawmakers go to work debating the funding mechanisms for the next bill – fuel taxes, tolls, etc. – the public is going to need some convincing.

Shuster says the big challenge is convincing the public that there’s a problem.

“We’re not going to ignore the funding issue. But I think it’s important that we build the case. We need to make sure the American people know there’s a problem,” Shuster told the summit group. “If we lead talking about funding, I think that diminishes what we have. We’ve got to build the case to the American people that there is a problem, and make sure they understand it.”

If they understand it, then asking the public to pay a little more would be an easier sell.

Another of the summit participants, Bud Wright with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials – easier to say as AASHTO – says the fix may not be as shocking to the American people as they might otherwise brace themselves for.

“It would take an additional $1 per week per person to grow the program at the federal level,” Wright said.

Greg Cohen, American Highway
Users Alliance
Wait a minute. Weren’t we just talking about spending an extra dollar on soft drinks?

Are we being told that we can once again regain a globally competitive and state-of-the-art system of highways and bridges for a buck a week? Not flying cars and smart grids, but we could certainly add capacity and make roads safer and less congested.

The debate will come from the various ways people will have for sweet-talking – or prying – that dollar out of people’s hands.

The trucking industry’s small businesses, owner-operators and large carrier fleets have all made their positions known, and it is surprisingly unified: increase the federal fuel tax rather than resort to overuse of tolling or other methods. This is an area in which OOIDA and the ATA fall on the same side.

The longer we wait, the deeper the hole gets. AASHTO says the Highway Trust Fund will have lost $57 billion because of alternative fuels and hybrid vehicles because fuel taxes are not collected on those vehicles. So something needs to be done to get those vehicles paying their fair share to use the system.

Sen. Boxer likes to talk about her hybrid vehicle and the fact that she has only filled the gas tank three times in the last 3,000 or so miles. She says she’s willing to pay her fair share but does not support a system that would have satellites and computers tracking every mile to apply a tax.

She was serious when she told the summit group she supports an honor system in which vehicle owners report their miles traveled when they renew their licenses, and pay their taxes based on their odometer readings.

But there’s not much bureaucracy in honor systems, and Washington loves a bureaucracy. Government loves to talk about creating jobs, and except for a few exceptions the government hardly ever shrinks.

Some, like U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, believe the transportation funding can come from a national infrastructure bank. He has a bill in Congress right now, HR2084, that would jumpstart the infrastructure bank plan without using any money from the Highway Trust Fund or U.S. Treasury funds. His seed-money idea is a bit complicated, but is something about bringing back money to America that has been invested offshore.

Rep. John Delaney of Maryland
And with any form of funding, the “who pays” will always be the highway user, in the form of any tax, toll or fee. So it’s back to convincing people they need to give up one soft drink per week to keep bridges from falling down.

We’ve heard the administration say for years that the president will not sign off on a fuel-tax increase while the economy is in recovery.

But, as many people said during the infrastructure summit, it’s time to have that discussion. It’s time to forge ahead. As the ATA’s Bill Graves said during the summit, we’ve got to convince the policymakers to forego their “intellectual amnesia” and take a stand.

The summit seemed to put everyone in the starting blocks for the long run ahead to the next highway bill. It was also a place for new ideas, concepts and opinions to be shared.

I couldn’t possibly walk away without sharing a video presented during the summit by Volvo Group President and CEO Olof Persson. He was part of a panel discussion titled Sustainable Pathways Forward.

Olof Persson, CEO of Volvo Group
The video shows how existing technology could lead to a form of “driverless” vehicle. Obviously, the drivers are still behind the wheel, but the technology would allow a string of vehicles – a platoon – to follow a lead vehicle without the need for hands-on control. It would work by relying on an experienced truck driver in the lead vehicle providing the cruise control for the pack. Check this out and try not to wince when you see the drivers reading the paper, surfing the Web on their tablets, or turning to talk to the camera.

The summit provided some opportunity to discuss other issues important to trucking and transportation. Rep. Shuster has spoken in his remarks about continuing to reduce the regulatory burden on transportation projects, carrying on from where MAP-21 leaves off.

During a Q&A, I asked if reducing the regulatory burden would apply to other areas as well, such as the trucking industry.

“We’ve got to be smart about this. We just can’t keep piling on regulations,” he responded.

I’m pleased with my first trip to Washington, D.C., to get a taste for how things work and hear directly from people who have key roles in transportation.

Freight movement, fuel efficiency, cost? They’ll all play into the equation for the next multiyear highway bill. We may even hear some of the same speeches when that time rolls around.

I could use some caffeine from the vending machine right now, but I think I’ll save my dollar and hit the water fountain instead.