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ATA chief Graves calls for Congress to go with “obvious” solution to stalled highway bill

By John D. Schulz, Contributing Editor
May 09, 2012

The nation’s sharply divided political landscape is harming the country because of Congress’s inability to pass a long-term highway bill and its unwillingness to raise federal fuel taxes.
 
That’s the word from Bill Graves, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations. He spoke at the National Industrial Transportation League (NIT League) freight transportation policy forum on May 8.
 
“We seem to have two extremes,” said Graves, a former Republican governor from Kansas. At the two extremes, the word “compromise” is not in their vocabulary, Graves said.
 
The highway bill and infrastructure “is a very big deal for this country,” Graves said. “If we’re not careful, we’re going to be in a position where we impede the economic development of this country.”
 
One of the reasons we’ve had a problem getting a highway bill is some Republicans feel the federal government should have no role in financing the nation’s highway and bridges, Graves said. They feel the federal government should devolve its responsibility in funding highways, which Graves called a terrible idea.
 
“All is does is send everything downstream to 50 states,” Graves said. “The last thing we want to see is a patchwork of 50 states which have pluses and minuses on infrastructure,” Graves said.
 
Over the next 10 years, Graves estimated the nation needs to spend $140 billion on infrastructure.
 
“The solution is obvious,” Graves said. “We need to increase the federal motor fuels tax (unchanged since 1993). That is the last thing that’s going to happen on Capitol Hill.”
 
Raising the fuel tax “is the conservative approach to funding transportation,” adding it is the lesser of two evils. He ripped those advocating more highway tolls to pay for infrastructure because of higher administrative costs.
 
Administrative costs in collecting the fuel tax is two-tenths of 1 percent, Graves said. He estimated administrative costs on toll roads run between 15 and 25 percent, which would siphon off much revenue needed for highways.
 
“We have to have a successful, multimodal transportation system to serve the people of this country,” Graves said.
At press time, House and Senate conferees were in negotiations to pass a two-year highway bill with spending about $55 billion annually, roughly the same levels as in the past. The current highway bill is stalled over how best to pay for it.
 
“I am not one who is optimistic about that conference committee,” Graves said. “Let’s face it. Even if the House and Senate agree to adapt the Senate version, which is a two-year bill. Even if we agreed on this, it’s time to start on the next one already.
 
“We need a long-term bill, a five- or six-year bill. I don’t think there is any scenario that has that happening,” Graves said. “Kick that can down the road.”
 
He called on Washington for a “regulatory timeout” for an unspecified period to allow trucking to help recapitalize the industry.
   
“I don’t know of any regulation that is adding capacity,” Graves said. “They all add cost to what we do. A slightly less robust regulatory agenda would not hurt right now. Maybe we need a regulatory timeout.”
 
ATA is backing legislation that would require electronic onboard recorders, speed governors that would limit truck speeds and a nationwide data clearing house to identify drivers with chronic drug and alcohol abuse problems.
 
The NIT League and ATA are allies in the fight to retain the current truck driver hours of service rules, which now allows 11 hours of driver in a 15-hour work day. The government is threatening to require at least two more 15-minute breaks that would raise trucking costs.
 
“Productivity of the driver is pretty much at the top of the list,” Graves said. “We’re trying to find that balance between safety and productivity.”
 
For the time being, trucking is giving up on trying to get heavier trucks allowed. ATA was backing a measure that would raise the allowable weight of a loaded Class 8 truck to 97,000 pounds (from the current 80,000 pounds).
 
An amendment that would have allowed that was stricken from the highway bill legislation after opposing lobbying by the railroads, Teamsters union and safety advocates.
 
“It’s a very contentious issue and we’ve learned that people on Capitol Hill will run from it,” Graves said.
 
Graves now calls is a “market issue,” and that heavier trucks will be allowed when highway congestion gets so bad that raising the weight limits will be seen as a way to get some trucks off the highways by allowing more weight on fewer trucks.

About the Author

image
John D. Schulz
Contributing Editor

John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. He is known to own the fattest Rolodex in the business, and is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis. This wise Washington owl has performed and produced at some of the highest levels of journalism in his 40-year career, mostly as a Washington newsman.


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