National Press Club

Coalition Advocates New Transportation Bill Ahead of Administration Schedule

September 15, 2009 | By Lorna Aldrich | Lorna2@verizon.net

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With the current surface transportation bill scheduled to lapse Sept. 30, a coalition of transportation suppliers and users accepted the bill’s extension as inevitable but advocated a new bill sooner than the administration’s proposed 18-month target at a Sept. 14 Newsmaker.

The challenge, according to Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is that “health care has sucked the oxygen out of the room.” She urged Congress to “multi-task” by addressing an issue that, she said, should be on the nation’s top priority list but is not. She emphasized, “This bill is about jobs and the economy.”

The Freight Stakeholders Coalition, 17 organizations representing shippers and public/private transportation providers, discussed options for reauthorizing the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act, known as SAFETEA, which was enacted in 2005 to lapse in 2009. The Coalition’s representatives emphasized three themes: the importance of improving the transportation system for growth in jobs and the economy, taxes on users to raise revenue and the need for a coordinated transportation system across modes of transport – highway, rail, ports and air.

Darrin Roth, director of highway operations for the American Trucking Association, said the top 200 highway bottlenecks cost the economy $19 billion per year. Citing the downturn in shipments due to the recession, Jennifer Macdonald, assistant vice president for government affairs of the Association of American Railroads, said this would be a good time to do repairs and increase capacity that would contribute to jobs and economic growth in the recovery.

Alan Biehler, Pennsylvania secretary of transportation and president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, called for $60 billion investment for freight transportation over the next six years, divided into $18 billion for freight improvements by states and $42 billion for national freight investment. The national program would be half run by the Department of Transportation to improve critical commerce corridors and half by states.

On the revenue side, the panel emphasized fuel and other “user taxes” to pay for the improvements. In response to a question about raising such taxes during a recession, Mortimer Downey, former deputy secretary of transportation in the Clinton administration and now chairman of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, noted that other gas tax rises occurred in times of economic difficulty, beginning with the 1958 gas tax to fund the interstate system and continuing during downturns in the early 1980s and 1990s. Downey also mentioned other possibilities for funds: container fees, a broad based tax on transportation and registration fees.

Biehler expressed the need for a broad strategy by noting, “We need to think in terms of a supply line.” He illustrated his point by describing a trip to China during which officials there described their plans for a system beginning with a deep water port and reaching back through rail and highways to the origins of shipments. He believes the United States has highway, rail, water and air systems that need to become one system.