LAS VEGAS, Nev. — For Canadian motor carriers frustrated with Ottawa’s historically slow response to dealing with our nation’s infrastructure needs or its push towards a more intrusive regulatory approach, rest assured. You are in good company.
They’re just as frustrated south of border, even with a new administration in place. The Obama administration’s honeymoon with the leaders of the American Trucking Associations (dubious at best considering the heavy Republican leanings of the membership shown in past conventions) is clearly over and infrastructure spending is a particularly sore point.
ATA president and CEO Bill Graves, a former two-term Republican senator in Kansas, came out swinging in his opening address to the annual conference, held this year at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas.
Graves said he is frustrated that Congress is working on things that it “really doesn’t need to at the moment and doesn’t work on things it really needs to.” Graves was referring specifically to what he perceived be a lack of action and funding for infrastructure by the Obama administration, pointing out that the administration recognizes and President Obama even acknowledged during his presidential campaign that America’s long-term competitiveness depends on the quality of its roads and bridges.
“It’s a point we enthusiastically agree on. But yet when it comes to taking action, both the White House and the Democratic leadership use all their energy and time on health care reform and climate change,” Graves said. “…I think it’s politically safer/easier to have grand discussions on subjects that are so complex and confusing, and provide legislators with a great degree of political cover by obfuscating the impacts the policies will have on Americans, while avoiding a straightforward discussion about the need to raise the national fuel tax.”
Graves stressed raising the national fuel tax is the only way to create the funding necessary to deal with his nation’s “staggering” infrastructure needs.
He pointed to a recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers that concluded that an estimated $930 billion needs to be spent over the next five years to fix the highway infrastructure. Yet of that, only an estimated $350 billion will be spent, a shortfall of $550 billion (when you take into account the $29 billion included in the 2009 economic stimulus package).
“The money included in the stimulus package was a start. But I take issue with labeling it a ‘record investment designed to lay the foundation for the nation’s economic future’, which were the words used to announce it, when, in fact, it fell far short of the money we needed and was such a disappointingly small fraction of the total stimulus package.”
Graves said that with all the money spent on the stimulus package, coupled with fighting wars on multiple fronts along with a serious decline in both federal and state governments there is simply no more general fund money available for infrastructure investment without raising taxes. But it’s a very tough fight for the industry to win and warned against expectations that something will happen soon.
“With a Congressional backdrop that lacks the ability to build consensus and has devoted inordinate amounts of time to disagreement, we are left with a political/policy scenario in which we have a clearly defined problem (a need for more money to be spent on infrastructure) but no political will – from either party or branch of government – to lead on the only currently available, practical solution, which is to raise the fuel tax,” Graves said.
Graves added the trucking industry is prepared to pay additional dollars in support of road and bridge construction but only if “our industry agenda is embraced.”
Another point of contention may be the issue of distracted driving. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood recently convened a national summit on the issue and ATA’s task force has developed a position. But Graves cautioned that “many government decision makers, starting with Secretary LaHood have a much broader and more aggressive strategy in mind than the voluntary best practices that our task force initially came up with.”
He said the situation will be an early test of how willing trucking executives are to figure out an industry-driven solution that would give the industry input into the regulations that would affect its in-cab driver operations for years to come.
Graves also stressed that the policy and regulatory reach of the federal government into business will surely increase over the next 5-10 years.
“Monday you will be struggling to understand a new OSHA requirement. Tuesday, EPA will be checking on one of your facilities for some level of potential contaminates. Wednesday, the FMCSA will be auditing to assure the highest level of safety. Thursday the HHS will be reviewing your contagious diseases action plan – seeking assurances that contagious diseases aren’t part of any shipment you’ll be delivering. And Friday the EEOC will be conducting a survey to see that you’re not discriminating against any of your employees,” he said, only half in jest. “The list of government agencies that now have a role in regulating your business reads like an alphabet soup.”<
But he also warned that failure to adopt to this more complicated, increasingly intrusive operating environment will mean failure to exist as a transportation enterprise.
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