It’s not too often you actually hear somebody come out in favour of a tax increase, but that exactly what Chris Burruss did.
Speaking at the Driving for Profit conference in Mississauga, Ont., the president of the Truckload Carriers Association told the audience that the existing infrastructure is so bad in the US that something needs to be done about it.
“As we look forward over the next couple of years, the key priority for us is going to be highway funding,” said Burruss.
“We have a woefully underfunded infrastructure in America right now. It’s almost an embarrassing situation. It was built as the model for the international community. It was a national defence network. It connected the United States and was able to move military equipment on a logistical basis. And it became a hell of a way to get goods from point A to point B. Unfortunately, we have not kept up with the demand. It seems like we’re always two lanes behind on the interstates. So by the time it gets to be a four-lane, it needs to be six. And by the time it’s six, it needs to be eight. Plus the fact that over 80% of our bridges in the United States are structurally deficient. That doesn’t give you a big warm fuzzy feeling as you’re travelling over these things, particularly when you start talking about increasing truck size nad weight.
“The problem in part is our own fault as an industry. For years we opposed everything—every single fee increase. We opposed any tax increases of any kind and we were pretty damn good at doing it. That started to change about five years ago when people started to say, ‘look we’re going to have to do something. You either become part of the solution or we’ll just move on without you. Then we found ourselves in the situation in the United States that was rare: the lack of desire to raise taxes, even in Congres. Even the Democrats don’t want to raise taxes, so we’re the ones, ironically, out there saying ‘We want a tax increase. We’re willing to take a hirer fuel tax. But it just hasn’t been on the table.”
According to Burruss, there is a bill before the government about a 15 cent fuel tax increase, but he said “that’s probably not near enough. It will have to be more than that.
“The problem we find ourselves in is as fuel economy comes up, tax revenues go down, so if you don’t tie that fuel tax to something, you end up in the same position we find ourselves in now.”
Burruss explained that the current highway funding legislation, MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act) expires in September, but in November the US is having its mid-term congressional elections.
“If you think they are going to try to pass some tax increase to increase funding for highways before that election, you’re kidding yourself. There is no way that is going to happen. I think they may have a shot of getting a framework bill in place before the elections, but it’s not going to be voted on any time soon.”
While he can see the need for a higher fuel tax, for the most part, Burruss doesn’t believe in adding tolls to the highways, calling in an “ineffective way to fund infrastructure.” About the only place he can see tolls is on new highway construction, but even then the association would need to look at every single project individually.
Along with funding highway construction and maintenance, Burruss, said the TCA’s other key priorities are the driver shortage, the industry’s image, equipment cost and fuel, and insurance requirements.
He also spoke at length about the need to change the job to better match the needs drivers. He says driver pay will have to increase, that there needs to be ways of allowing drivers to spend more time at home, and working to improve drivers’ health.
“Driver health is a big issue for us,” he said, noting that not only is the industry losing drivers for age-related reasons, but that others are vanishing due to health-related causes. “They’re simply not here anymore.
“Our industry is at the bottom when it comes to comparing health numbers, and I’ll just give you a few examples. Seventy percent of our drivers are obese, compared to 31% of workers in other industries….Fifty-one percent are smokers versus 19% of other workers in the States. Self-reported diabetes is twice what it is in other occupations at 14%. Fifteen percent show signs of sleep apnea—which I think is a highly subjective number. I think it’s more than that….And the life expectancy in the mid-upper 50s is well below the national average.”
He added that while “we talk about drivers being the most important part of our businesses as an industry, yet we’re not willing to do the things we need to do to try to help them extend their lives.”
Burruss thinks it doesn’t matter where the health problem originated. He thinks if there is a tool, an option, or a solution that can help employees solve their issues, companies should use it.
“We find, it’s not that the drivers don’t know what their problems are,” he said. “They have a fatalistic view of what can be done to improve their lives given their sedentary lifestyle. It’s our responsibility to show them [what can be done].”
Burruss also said it’s up to the industry to show itself in a better light. By having a better image, it makes it harder for the government to enact legislation deemed detrimental to the industry. “It’s easy to get things pushed through to an industry that doesn’t have a very good image.”