Sep 24, 2018
October 2018 Letter from the Editor
Fortune Favors the Bold
I’ve mentioned before my former violin teacher instructed me to play with gusto, even if I thought I would bow a sour note. She didn’t want me to play music “weakly” and have a poor performance overall. I still love her for that advice, some 34+ years later.
Let’s apply her lesson to the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) debate.
During the Transportation Construction Coalition (TCC) Fly-in May 2018, the representatives the Florida delegation met with had similar thoughts: Suggesting we raise the gas tax is akin to waving a political white flag. Members of Congress, according to the conversations I sat in on, have no appetite for fighting an uphill battle to increase a tax during an election year. They do, however, want to hear alternate funding plans to fix the HTF.
This makes sense to me. Working adults don’t typically consider paying taxes a joyful thing. When a candidate is running for governor of a state claiming that state needs to raise taxes by several billion dollars, the typical working adult might cringe.
With these thoughts in mind, I felt myself questioning a presentation at the NAPA midyear meeting in Boston from Ed Mortimer, vice president for transportation infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He told the legislative micro-session audience that his office is pursuing a gas tax increase as a fix for the HTF. He outlined the increase that would take place over each of five years as part of the Chamber’s four-point infrastructure plan. He justified it by explaining the gas tax is something representatives are familiar with.
He essentially explained that it’s easier for the Chamber to prep the language and put the proposal together, it’s easier for folks to “explain” a gas tax, which members of the Chamber are fully aware is leaking efficacy as gas revenues decline. It’s easier because the structure is already in place. It’s easier.
In my opinion, trying to force a five-year gasoline user fee increase down Congress’s throat might not be easier than trying something new, and might be a waste of time and resources.
Look at the fiasco taking place in California to see the ability of ballot initiatives to overthrow the will of the people, and you can see that gas taxes are turning into a kiss of death for representatives—and representatives know it. We need a different answer—such as a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) user fee and/or tolls and/or put-your-favorite-funding-flavor here—to offer representatives to fix the ailing HTF before 2020.
Before I leave you with the impression that I’m against a gasoline user fee increase, let me clarify my stance. I believe an increase at the federal level is a fine idea for a short-term fix, if representatives were willing to entertain it. I have no qualms paying an extra 25 cents at the pump. As Astec’s Ben Brock has pointed out to us before, we can explain to legislators that drivers can shop around for price differences to ease the pressure of 10, 12, 20 cents per gallon. I’ve seen the same phenomenon Brock has where the station on one corner has a price point 12 to 20 cents lower than the station down the street. They’re not in a war like they were in the ’70s where they’re watching each other change the signs and then adjusting accordingly. (If you’re paying attention, this is the second time in this letter that I’ve dated myself.)
The point is this: raising the federal gasoline user fee for the express purpose of padding the HTF, while long overdue, isn’t going to meet with Overwhelming Congressional Joy (OCJ). Trying to take the easy way out may not be the easy way at all. Maybe I’m wrong and this Administrative season is wacky enough that anything goes, but I’m leaning toward caution on the part of the representatives who value their jobs. The better way to get a solid, long-term fix for the HTF is to get bold.
Let’s prepare a new plan. We can, as an industry, conceive and bring forth a new funding mechanism that multiplies dollars and deposits them into the HTF coffers, earmarking them for road and bridge projects. Fortune favors the bold and the music sounds better when played with gusto. Stay Safe,