Passing Zone

'Welcome to Washington...'

Blog Commentary by David Cullen, Executive Editor

May 25, 2017

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President Trump's 2018 Budget Photo: White House Office of Management and Budget
President Trump's 2018 Budget Photo: White House Office of Management and Budget

Anyone hoping they’ll learn lots more about that trillion-dollar infrastructure investment plan President Trump first dangled before the nation back on the day after the election has to be sorely disappointed if they read the foundational document on his federal budget proposal just put out by the White House.

Grandly titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” the Fiscal Year 2018 budget document runs over 50 pages.

But less than a single printed page is devoted to “an Infrastructure Plan to support $1 trillion in private/public infrastructure investment.”

What’s more, or less as the case is here, the discussion about infrastructure is presented in the most general of terms.

The only mention tying in highways comes in a laundry list of what the plan aims to fix: “surface transportation, airports, waterways, ports, drinking and waste water, broadband and key Federal facilities.”

Rather than seeking substantial increases in federal spending on infrastructure from Congress, the message is loud and clear that Trump sees the private sector riding to the rescue of America's failing infrastructure.  

The administration’s goal is “to seek long-term reforms on how infrastructure projects are regulated, funded, delivered, and maintained. Simply providing more Federal funding for infrastructure is not the solution. Rather, we will work to fix underlying incentives, procedures, and policies to spur better, and more efficient, infrastructure decisions and outcomes.”

The document claims that the president’s target of $1 trillion in investments will be “met with a combination of new Federal funding, incentivized non-Federal funding, and expedited projects that would not have happened but for the administration’s involvement (for example, the Keystone XL Pipeline).”

The budget calls for $200 billion in federal outlays “related to the infrastructure initiative,” which appears intended to work as seed money for public-private partnerships (P3) projects, such as tolled highways.

That’s suggested by this sentence: “The impact of this investment will be amplified with other administrative and regulatory actions the administration plans to pursue.”

The infrastructure passage closes with the assertion that the administration also “will eliminate or significantly revise regulations that create unnecessary barriers to infrastructure investment by all levels of government and the private sector.”

That’s all fine and good. But nowhere does it say even from where that $200 billion in federal funding for P3s to leverage will be coming.

There is certainly no mention of the funding mechanism for pumping up the Highway Trust Fund that is most favored by the trucking industry: Raising federal fuel taxes.

That’s a major concern of David Congdon, CEO of Old Dominion Freight Line and co-chair of the infrastructure task force made up of top carrier executives that the American Trucking Associations formed right after the election.  

David Congdon Photo: Old Dominion Freight Line
David Congdon Photo: Old Dominion Freight Line
When I asked Congdon the other day how ATA’s effort to draw attention to the need for vastly increasing highway funding was coming along, he replied, “Welcome to Washington, where it’s not as easy to get things done as you’d like.”  

He explained that ATA set up the task force “to get ahead of the power curve to offer our assessments [on infrastructure] to President Trump and to Secretary Chao.”

The group got to meet with Chao in January, but as it was her third day on the job “she wasn’t prepared to discuss details.”  

Then the ATA leaders got the president’s ear during a well-publicized meeting at the White House. But timing is everything and as it happened, both the president and Vice President Pence were more interested in buttonholing truckers on the highly controversial healthcare bill that was before the House that March day.  

“Since then,” Congdon told me, “ATA has been doing a pretty good job behind the scenes working with Secretary Chao and her team— we’re continuing to plant the seeds on what our greatest needs are.”  

And topping that list, he said is “increasing the fuel tax. It could be collected at the fuel rack so it just becomes part of the cost. It’s the most efficient way to collect money [to fund roads]. Every penny a gallon raised generates $1.5 billion a year.

"We’re still advocating increasing the fuel tax because it would contribute immediately and substantially to highway funding," Congdon continued. It should be indexed to inflation and maybe also to the rising rate of fuel economy.”  

Congdon concedes he “doesn’t know which way” this idea will go this time around, “but President Trump has heard about it from us. We feel if he takes the lead on this, he may be able to get everyone on board. Anyway, we are trying to move it along.”  

That’s all anyone can hope to do inside the Beltway— no matter who is calling the shots in the Oval Office.

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Author Bio

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David Cullen

Executive Editor

Executive Editor David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

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