122997130 | VinceZen | Dreamstime.com
Dreamstime Xxl 122997130

Infrastructure bill hangs in the balance

Oct. 1, 2021
The first major road and bridge repair bill of the century is being held up by progressive Democrats looking for more spending on "human infrastructure." Frustrated trucking and business leaders said the nation needs Congress to act.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill vote in the House was delayed another day late Thursday after Democrats were unable to reach a deal on other legislation packages, which left trucking and business leaders frustrated.

As progressive Democrats in the House push a bigger, separate "human infrastructure" package, the more than $1 trillion infrastructure package—passed by the Senate on Aug. 10—remains in limbo after Speaker Nancy Pelosi delayed a planned Sept. 30 vote. Moderate Democrats in the Senate are balking at House progressives' push for a more than $3 trillion separate social spending package. Those House progressives said they wouldn’t support the infrastructure bill unless the Senate passed the social spending bill. 

“If this particular vote fails, I really believe there will be another one, somewhere down the line, our country and the industry depend on it,” P. Sean Garney, co-director of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, told FleetOwner this week. “Our supply chain is under intense pressure, our roads are falling apart, and crashes are on the rise. It’s not if, it’s when. We’ll just all need to live through the brinksmanship and grandstanding until a mounting crisis clears the way. It’s not the way it’s supposed to work, but it, unfortunately, is the way things work in D.C. these days.”

The way things work in D.C. is frustrating trucking and business leaders across the country. “It’s not like we’re having an argument over substance here and improving the bill,” Neil Bradley, U.S. Chamber of Commerce EVP and chief policy officer, said of the infrastructure package. “We’re having an argument amongst different hard partisan factions. And it’s not clear what’s going to break that fever. So the best way to break that fever is for them to vote today and vote their conscience and pass the bill.”

Bradley spoke during a joint press call with Chris Spear, American Trucking Associations president and CEO, held earlier on Sept. 30 when it appeared that the House would still hold a vote. About 12 hours after that Thursday morning call, Pelosi pushed the potential vote back to Friday, Oct. 1.

‘We want to be on Plan A’

“We’ve been running on ‘Plan B’ for the last five years,” Spear said during that morning press call. “We want to be on ‘Plan A.’ They’ve got an opportunity today to send this to the president’s desk for signature.”

The trucking industry, which includes more than 8 million American workers, moves more than 70% of the nation’s freight along U.S. roads. “Our industry, our drivers, they see firsthand the dire conditions of our roads and bridges,” Spear said. “This is our shop floor. And we’re making sure that those store shelves are restocked and that the PPE and now the vaccines are delivered throughout the country.”

The more than 3.5 million truck drivers, moving that freight, deal with the nation’s crumbling infrastructure every day, Spear said. “Of the 617,000 bridges across the U.S., nearly half of those are 50 years old,” he said. “And 46,000 of them are structurally deficient. Of our 4 million miles of public roads, nearly half are in poor or mediocre condition. This is embarrassing—and it’s completely unacceptable.”

The nation’s failing infrastructure costs the trucking industry $74.5 billion a year in lost productivity as drivers and freight sit idle in traffic for 1.2 billion hours. “And it’s reflected in the prices we all pay for the things we want and need,” Spear said. “Also 67 million metric tons of CO2 emissions being released into our environment. There’s something (in this bill) for everybody: farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and even consumers. It’s an easy, long overdue fix.”

About half of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill—known as BIF on Capital Hill— includes new spending. The money the Senate approved nearly two months ago would fix roads and bridges ($110 billion), build out nationwide electric vehicle charging infrastructure ($7.5 billion), improve ports and waterways ($16 billion), fund public transit ($49 billion), boost freight and passenger rail ($66 billion), improve airports ($25 billion), and boost broadband internet infrastructure ($65 billion). 

If the House approves the bill, it would be a top accomplishment for President Biden. No president this century has been able to get an infrastructure bill this significant through Congress. The $1 trillion package would dwarf the Obama era American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which totaled more than $800 billion but only spent about $48 billion on hard infrastructure. 

“We should have already passed this bill,” Bradley said during the press call. “Frankly, prior Congresses should have passed this bill years ago. The supply chain issues that companies and businesses are facing, the deterioration of our electric grids and our water supply systems and the threats of natural disasters—all of these are things addressed in this bill, but none of the investments will happen unless the House passes the bipartisan infrastructure bill today.” 

Bradley added that there is a cost to delaying the infrastructure bill. He noted that state and local officials across the country are making their budget plans for capital expenditures, such as road work and bridge repair. Those states, he said, need to know what money they will have to plan and budget out that work, which includes engineer work this winter so construction and repair work can begin next spring and summer. 

“It is not cost-free to simply kick the can down the road,” Bradley said. “It’s also not clear what gets better when you kick the can down the road.”

What’s in it for trucking?

“Generally speaking, this highway bill will be good for transportation and trucking,” said Garney of transportation consulting firm Scopelitis. “Besides the sizable boost in spending on highway infrastructure, the bill is also full of policy provisions that will improve safety and help address critical driver shortage issues.”

There is a lot to do with trucking among the 2,700-page bill: a mandate for automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems on commercial vehicles, trailer and truck underride guard studies, driver workforce outreach programs, promoting women to work in the trucking industry, and a study of truck leasing, and a pilot program to allow younger drivers to operate across state lines, among other items.

“Many of the studies and pilot programs will hopefully move our lawmakers toward more permanent solutions to lingering problems like how to pay for our infrastructure, how to address the driver shortage, and what the lasting impact of advanced driver assistance and autonomous driving systems,” Garney said. “By and large, it’s the studies and pilot programs in the bill that are likely to have a big impact on highway safety and the trucking industry.”

Besides better roads and safer bridges, BIF’s apprenticeship pilot program, formerly the DRIVE-Safe Act, could have the most impact on the trucking industry, Garney said.” It has been beefed up with additional safety controls. It could really aid our understanding of the safety of a well-trained, professionalized younger driver workforce while opening a door through which the industry can attract more drivers and prepare them for a long and safe career.”

What’s next?

After progressives in the House threatened to sink the infrastructure bill on Thursday, Pelosi said late Thursday night she still plans to bring it up for a vote on Friday. The speaker and Biden have been negotiating with moderate Democrats Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to find a social spending package they can agree to support in the Senate. 

"We expect them to vote, we expect them to put America first before their own jobs," ATA's Spear said on Thursday. "That's what they were sent here to do. This is inexcusable. If this bill goes down today, it is an embarrassment. Every one of them, Republicans and Democrats should be ashamed of themselves."

House progressives first pushed a nearly $3.5 trillion bill to expand social safety net programs, including climate-change provisions, and increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Manchin and Sinema, whose votes are needed in the evenly divided Senate, have said they would only support a social spending bill that cost less than what the House progressives are pushing. 

All sides have said they will continue discussions on Friday, Oct. 1.

About the Author

Josh Fisher | Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Josh Fisher has been with FleetOwner since 2017, covering everything from modern fleet management to operational efficiency, artificial intelligence, autonomous trucking, regulations, and emerging transportation technology. He is based in Maryland. 

Sponsored Recommendations

Reducing CSA Violations & Increasing Safety With Advanced Trailer Telematics

Keep the roads safer with advanced trailer telematics. In this whitepaper, see how you can gain insights that lead to increased safety and reduced roadside incidents—keeping drivers...

80% Fewer Towable Accidents - 10 Key Strategies

After installing grille guards on all of their Class 8 trucks, a major Midwest fleet reported they had reduced their number of towable accidents by 80% post installation – including...

Proactive Fleet Safety: A Guide to Improved Efficiency and Profitability

Each year, carriers lose around 32.6 billion vehicle hours as a result of weather-related congestion. Discover how to shift from reactive to proactive, improve efficiency, and...

Tackling the Tech Shortage: Lessons in Recruiting Talent and Reducing Turnover

Discover innovative strategies for recruiting and retaining tech talent in the trucking industry during this informative webinar, where experts will share insights on competitive...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of FleetOwner, create an account today!