"This is a very big deal for this country," Graves told an audience of shippers at a National Industrial Transportation League conference in Arlington, Va., yesterday.
Congress's response to the infrastructure challenge has been inadequate, he said. "If we're not careful we're going to create a situation where we start to impede the economic progress of this country (and) make it much more difficult for U.S. businesses to be competitive."
Graves, who was Republican governor of Kansas before taking the ATA post, sees himself as a centrist who values the ability to compromise - one of a vanishing breed in modern politics.
The facts clearly point to the need to raise fuel taxes in order to reinvest in the national infrastructure. Graves cited a study showing that over the next decade the Highway Trust Fund will fall $140 billion short of even maintain current spending.
But raising the tax is not possible because the people on the two extremes of the political spectrum are not interested in compromise, he said. "And that is at the heart of why we have so many problems today politically."
Government That Works
On one side there are Democrats who believe that every solution requires a government program. On the other, conservative Republicans believe the federal government should get out of the highway business altogether.
"All that does is send the problem downstream, to where the states have to raise the money." The last thing he wants is for each state to have a different approach to investing in infrastructure, he said.
"We need to have a government that works and is accountable."
His view is that the odds of achieving that ideal on the highway bill are not great.
The House is going to conference with a bill that does little other than order the Obama administration to approve construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Even if the conferees adopt the Senate bill, it's just a two-year program that will run only until October 2014 - which means that hearings and drafting for the next bill must begin immediately.
Higher fuel taxes are the best answer to the all-important funding issue, Graves said. Privatization only leads to tolling, and tolling is a much less efficient way to raise money than fuel taxes are.
The administrative cost of collecting the federal fuel tax is 0.2%, compared to 15% or more for tolling systems, he said.
His message to the Tea Party constituency in Congress is that the fuel tax is the conservative approach to funding. "It is the conservative answer to what we need to do. Tolling is not a conservative answer and yet that's the direction everyone's heading."
Graves listed a number of concerns he described as "headwinds" for the industry, such as fuel and equipment prices, driver availability and federal regulations.
ATA is an energetic supporter of a number of regulations in progress, such as electronic onboard recorders, speed limiters and fuel economy standards. But at the same time, the association also longs for a less intrusive federal government.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's CSA safety enforcement program is a good example, Graves said.
ATA has worked hard to help FMCSA improve the rule, he said. But in the wake of the agency's recent decision to postpone action on establishing crash accountability standards in its safety data, the association is beginning to wonder if it has gone as far it can go in resolving its concerns.
"You may begin to see ATA taking a firmer stance in expressing some of the concerns we have," he said.