The countdown for Sept. 30, 2003 has begun. On this day, the historic Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) expires. Highway and transit programs don't stay on autopilot once enacted, but must be reauthorized by Congress. The stakes for reauthorization are enormous — and the battle for funding has begun.
First out of the block is a proposal by House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-AK) that would:
Increase the highway users fee excise tax for motor fuels by 2c/gal. a year between 2004 and 2009;
Index the federal motor fuels user fee annually for inflation;
Ensure that the Highway Trust Fund is fully compensated for the use of ethanol-based motor fuels;
Re-institute the interest payments on the Highway Trust Fund balance, and;
Spend down the balance in the fund, rather than “warehouse” the money for years, as is now the case.
The argument for new money to maintain and build highways is powerful. A minimum of $50 billion in annual federal highway funding — for each of the next six years — is essential just to maintain the current state of highways and bridges, say government officials.
Many road and bridges remain in deplorable condition, resulting in an estimated $49 billion in extra vehicle repair and operating costs annually. But for the next six years, collections for the Highway Trust Fund's highway account are projected to average only about $32.4 billion, far less than what is needed.
With traffic congestion getting worse each year, roads wear out faster — compounding the problem of maintenance that is already behind schedule. A GAO study found that all 50 states expect truck traffic to increase over the next decade. FHWA estimates that freight movement by truck will increase 28% between 2001 and 2010, compared to 17% for passenger traffic. By 2020, truck freight volume is expected to more than double, yet road construction will remain at a relatively static 15%, at least east of the Mississippi.
Trucks figure significantly as highway users. In 2002, large trucks accounted for 12.8% of traffic on Interstates and 5.8% on other roads.Between l981 and 2000, total miles of Interstates grew 9.9%, while large truck traffic grew 110.8% annually, 11 times faster than highway capacity.
While the case for new highway funding is compelling, the means of generating that money is controversial. Congressman Young's proposal for a user-fee increase of 2¢ for each of the next six years will do the job, but not without a fight from those who oppose such increases in general. Each cent of this tax generates about $1.7 billion a year, with $1.4 billion going to the highway account of the Highway Trust Fund.
Another proposal for TEA-21 reauthorization would allow construction of truck-only lanes, paid for by tolls on Interstates instituted to cover the cost of right-of-way design, construction and maintenance of these lanes.
It's time for the private truck industry to give its “2¢ worth” of input on these proposals and tackle the debate head-on. The country is in a transportation capacity crisis. Roads are wearing out due to increased use, lagging road-repair maintenance schedules, and lack of funding.
Absent new solutions for improving and expanding our highway infrastructure in the coming years, commercial trucks face a stalled future.
Source of statistical data: Federal government agencies as noted and the American Road and Transportation Builders Assn.
Gary Petty is President and CEO of NPTC. His column appears monthly in FLEET OWNER.