Photo by David Bohrer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Thomas Donohue, president & CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

U.S. Chamber tabs highway bill as 2014 priority

Jan. 8, 2014
Business lobby also wants to focus on energy and U.S. trade

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to make highway-bill reauthorization one of its top priorities for 2014. That's because it also impacts other major goals of the nation’s largest business federation, such as boosting U.S. trade and increasing domestic energy production.

“This year we have an opportunity to turn the page,” said Thomas Donohue, U.S. Chamber president & CEO, during the group’s State of American Business address today in Washington D.C.

“Overall growth for 2013 will probably come between just 1.8% and 2%. We should do considerably better this year—with growth accelerating to near 3%,” he said. “Housing is recovering and overall household wealth has now surpassed its pre-recession level. This has boosted consumption, which is leading to more business investment and some new hiring.”

Donohue-- who at one time was president & CEO of the American Trucking Assns. (ATA) lobby-– added that the U.S. economy is also benefitting from continued strength in domestic energy production and improvements in trade and hopes to get both the Obama Administration and Congress “to let business do more of both… to generate more jobs and income than any government program can deliver.”

Yet he stressed that trading around the world and moving energy across the country requires a safe, seamless, and modern infrastructure.

“Families, workers, visitors, tourists, and our environment need it too—to speed mobility, conserve energy, clean the air, and save lives,” Donohue said. “[That’s why] the Chamber will work for a multi-year reauthorization of the nation’s core surface transportation program, which expires at the end of September. And, we’re asking Congress to complete work on a major water resources bill as soon as possible.”

The Chamber plans to hold its annual Transportation & Infrastructure Summit February 20 this year, which will address the growing shortage of funds needs to maintain and expand the nation’s highway networks.

“Here are a few realities: While we built the best infrastructure system in the world, it’s in a rapid state of decline, threatening safety, productivity, and our global competitiveness,” Donohue noted in a speech given during the 2013 summit. “As a nation, we’re broke. The Highway Trust Fund is on the verge of bankruptcy as gas mileage increases, user fees remain frozen in place, and receipts fall. Although earmarks have been eliminated, much of the public still equates infrastructure spending with pork barrel projects.”

He added that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it would take an additional $1.66 trillion to bring the U.S. transportation system as a whole up to an acceptable level – a figure that balloons to $2.75 trillion by 2020 if nothing is done.

“We can help bridge this gap by phasing-in a modest gas tax increase over a number of years and indexing it to inflation,” Donohue said last year. “The civil engineers say that if governments at all levels don’t significantly increase infrastructure spending over the next 20 years, we could lose 3.5 million jobs, $3.1 trillion in GDP, and $3,100 in annual disposable income per household. Let me be clear—the funding shortages aren’t just in highways and transit. We need investment in all modes and sectors.”

That’s why the Chamber is making renewal of the highway bill in 2014 a major priority: because in many respects it underpins the group’s trade and domestic energy goals.

“We’ve got a great opportunity this year to spur jobs and growth by expanding international trade and investment,” Donohue said today. “And with 20 years of NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] success under our belt, it’s time to move the North American partnership to a higher level—working together to develop energy, attract manufacturing, and build a competitive position in the world that is second to none.”

Advancing and protecting what he dubbed “America’s energy revolution” is another key part of the Chamber’s 2014 agenda, with the group’s Institute for 21st Century Energy arm planning to unveil a new Energy Works for US initiative that contains more than 60 recommendations to help unleash its benefits across the entire U.S. economy.

“In 2012, unconventional oil and gas alone added $284 billion in GDP [gross domestic product], generated nearly $75 billion in federal and state tax revenues, and supported 2.1 million jobs,” Donohue said.

“America’s new era of energy abundance gives us an unrivaled opportunity to transform the U.S. from a nation dependent on imports to a significant energy exporter. It means we can continue to attract new manufacturing and, over time, trillions of dollars of investments to our country,” he noted.

“Yet the progress we’ve made so far has come about largely in spite of national policy rather than because of it,” Donohue stressed. “We need to thoughtfully open more federal lands onshore and offshore. And, we must remove and guard against unnecessary restrictions, delays, and regulations.”

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