Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Give Us Something We Can Rely On

(from the August/September 2010 Editor's Note of AsphaltPro Magazine)

For quite some time now I’ve suggested that raising the gasoline user fee to supplement the Highway Trust Fund would be problematic. I’ve encouraged members of the asphalt industry to write in with their ideas for funding; I’ve offered some painful ideas of my own. Now, I’m disappointed to say, the secretary of transportation has made what I consider an irresponsible announcement for someone in his position by stating “raising the gas tax is not an option.”

How dare he slam that door?

He’s falling back on the already disproved concept of toll roads and the not-yet-disproved Obama plan for highway funding. I cringe. I assume I don’t have to explain to the AsphaltPro audience the problems with relying on tolls for funding—or the sudden detriment to parallel corridors and those corridors’ pavement maintenance plans when tolls are set in place.

We can all agree the current gasoline user fee doesn’t cover Highway Trust Fund needs. You don’t need me to tell you it’s been losing “currency” for years due to inflation and, more recently, due to fewer miles driven and ethanol additives, etc.

What the trust fund needs is a good shot in the arm with a cost-of-living tax hike. Whether or not such a beast can be conjured during this economy is for the pundits to debate. Although I have an opinion on the matter that’s south of positive, I’m not ready to go down without a fight. There are people who can read a graph, if you present it to them logically. There are people who will understand that the gasoline user fee is a deficit-neutral item that is truly a user fee. If you don’t use the road today, you don’t pay the fee on gasoline today. It’s pretty simple.

Unfortunately, the loss of the gasoline user fee’s effectiveness coupled with Congress’s inaction on a long-term reauthorization bill has gutted infrastructure planning and expenditures. Jay Hansen of NAPA pointed out during a transportation coalition webinar at the end of July that this means highway jobs and conditions are at risk. Jobs are at risk to the tune of 870,000 people over the next two years. That’s something your representatives need to know. They have a chance to save their constituents’ jobs if they’ll just get on the ball and get a user fee increase and a reauthorization bill taken care of.

While we’re on the topic, Congress has bandied about a new transportation bill that throws another $4 billion on top of the expired SAFETEA-LU’s allotted monies. Again, where does the funding come from? We love to see Congress finally give attention to an industry that can rescue the economy and create lasting jobs from one end of the construction spectrum to the other, but we must enforce the idea that this industry of superheroes deserves to have a strong, reliable, lasting bank account behind it. Congress needs to put in place not just the rosy idea of planned projects that make a safe, positive transportation infrastructure, but also the resources that make the building of those very real and solid projects possible.

We must enforce the idea that long-term planning at the state level happens when agencies and owners can rely on the money promised in a transportation bill. The bill must be lasting, it must be stable, it must be adequate for the times. Otherwise, a soft and mushy set of half-plans and half-promises leaves unsteady work orders on tap. What Congress must do is deliver a strong and reliable bill backed by a strong and reliable funding stream so we, as an industry, can deliver a strong and reliable work force with strong and reliable infrastructure for the future.

Have you shared this message with your representatives? Do they know how important their actions are when it comes to transportation funding legislation? I encourage you to fill them in. Please visit NAPA’s website to download toolkits for contacting your representatives. Also, be sure to take advantage of the brief window you have with your representatives while they’re in their home districts as this issue of AsphaltPro hits your desk. They return to Washington soon and you can reach them in their offices there after Sept. 13.

Stay Safe,
Sandy Lender
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