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Obama offers same song, same verse on highway funding

Let’s get the bad news up front: President Obama did not mention ‘trucks’ or ‘trucking’ one time in the State of the Union speech Tuesday night, despite a lot of attention to the growing economy. Or maybe that’s good news – from an administration that’s not shy about regulation.

For those keeping score, ‘highway’ didn’t get a call, ‘road’ shows up twice, but in a context that has nothing to do with asphalt. Instead, the president spoke of ‘infrastructure’ five times.

Mark Twain suggested that one shouldn’t use a $5 word when a 50 cent word would do. The thing about ‘infrastructure’ is that it could mean anything, and so it means nothing.

Simply, trucking is not high on the administration’s list of transportation priorities.

The bottom line is this: “21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure – modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest internet,” the president said, and he called on the new Republican-led Congress to work with Democrats to develop a funding solution.

And while paying for highways with corporate tax reform isn’t the user-pay system many in trucking would like to see, congressional leadership can’t seem to work up the nerve for a fuel tax increase – so give the White House credit for getting a proposal on the table and sticking with it.

Indeed, in the absence of alternatives from Capitol Hill, the administration’s plan is looking more and more doable than it did a year ago – even to some Republicans, despite the ongoing adversarial relationship with the White House and particularly the pushback against the president’s aggressive exercise of the powers of the office.

Heading into May, when the current federal surface transportation spending plan expires, let’s keep an ear out for how many times we hear “bipartisan” and “infrastructure plan” used together, as the president did in his speech. Of course, his reference came only after he got in a dig at the Republican focus on the Keystone pipeline – so we see that “bipartisan” in Washington always comes with qualifications.

Still, why not have high hopes? Or at least modest ones, like keeping the highway system in good enough shape to keep the freight moving.

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