ST. LOUIS — In an ideal world, fixing our nation’s crumbling infrastructure would be the low-hanging fruit for political bipartisanship. However, we live in the real world.
After more than a month of negotiations, this week, communication collapsed between President Joe Biden and a small group of Republican senators over disagreements on what constitutes infrastructure and how much money should be earmarked for it.
“We need fixes to our roads and bridges, that’s the first thing,” David Heller, Truckload Carriers Association vice president of government affairs, told FleetOwner, during TCA’s Safety & Security Meeting this week. “What has traveling during COVID taught us? That freight can move more efficiently with less congestion. It’s the simplest idea out there, so getting more dollars to create better freight delivery networks certainly would prove that.”
While communication on Capitol Hill was unraveling on June 8, Dave Nemo and Jimmy Mac, hosts of Radio Nemo, joined Heller to discuss infrastructure and the current state of government affairs under the Biden administration during a TCA Safety & Security Meeting fireside chat.
Infrastructure—and how to pay the bill
The most recently released infrastructure bill from the House, the INVEST in America Act, has a lot of truck safety measures buried within it, Heller pointed out. That bill is part of highway reauthorization talks, which are related to, but independent from the American Jobs Act, President Biden’s proposed $2.3 trillion tax and spending plan and his original campaign plan for infrastructure.
Heller pointed to one area of the House’s reauthorization that trucking should keep its eye on. There is one statement included that would allow the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to view ELD data if this gets passed.
Heller was quick to note, however, that due to the partisan political environment, there are many issues in this bill that may not stick in talks moving forward.
“The parts of reauthorization we do like are things like AEB (automatic emergency braking) technology and putting that on all new vehicles,” Heller told FleetOwner. “It’s time, and it’s a technology that works. It’s proven that it works, and it has done a tremendous job of reducing accidents.”
Heller also said reauthorization talks include mandates for side underride guards. However, that equipment, he said, needs to be studied further.
“The devices are just too new in terms of putting them out there,” he explained. “We don’t have the data generated yet on these devices to see if it’s really a best fit for the industry. Frankly, the price tag alone on these things would be dramatic for an industry that has millions of pieces of equipment that would need it.”
There’s also mention of minimum insurance requirements for commercial motor carriers in the bill. Earlier this year, Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Illinois) introduced a bill calling for $4.9 million for minimum insurance requirements for motor carriers. Now, there is language in the INVEST in America Act reducing that minimum requirement to $2 million. Today, the minimum insurance requirement for motor carriers is $750,000.
So, what’s the right number? “I think if you put too many people in a room, you’re going to get a different number out of all of them,” Heller said. “This is an issue that certainly has to be discussed. How it will move forward, I don’t know.”
No matter what measures make the final bill, the heart of the conversation will be how to pay for all of this and getting those dollars to add up from the Highway Trust Fund, which receives money from a federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel and related excise taxes. The fund hasn’t changed since 1993 and has failed to keep up with inflation.
Talks have been circulating about whether a vehicle miles traveled tax, or VMT, would be a viable replacement for the Highway Trust Fund. The American Transportation Research Institute determined that replacing the federal fuel tax with a VMT tax that is assessed on 272 million private vehicles could result in collection costs of more than $20 billion annually — or 300 times higher than the federal fuel tax.
However, questions remain as to how the federal government would collect those VMT funds. In its research thus far, ATRI has also found that a VMT tax is a far more complicated and costly replacement for the fuel tax than many had anticipated. Hardware costs alone would have an initial price tag of $13.6 billion and require ongoing replacement, telecommunications costs would be approximately $13 billion annually, and account administration would be an additional $4.3 billion each year. On top of these costs, credit card transactions for electronic payment and even the shipping costs for the hardware could each cost more than $1 billion.
During TCA’s fireside chat discussion, Nemo alluded to the idea that the most logical route to take for now would be raising the fuel tax since the system is already in place. He then asked about electric vehicles (EVs), which do not currently contribute to the Highway Trust Fund.
Heller advised that there first must be a national pilot program that examines the aspects of what a VMT looks like. He added that trucking companies will need to get involved in those pilots to report back VMT program shortcomings.
“VMT is not ready for prime time this year,” Heller said. “There will be a time that could be the case provided you get the issues ironed out. Right now is the time for national pilot programs to figure out how these things really work.”
Heller emphasized the importance of having these conversations and coming to a solution in order to help prevent events like the I-40 bridge closure. The I-40 bridge in Memphis shut down in May because the structure was cracked and a danger to cross. The shutdown has dramatically changed the way trucking companies deliver freight in an area that links Tennessee to Arkansas.
Ultimately, infrastructure, if it’s going to get done, will have to be done soon, Heller explained, noting that next year’s mid-term elections could change the structure of Congress.
“We have to be involved in those conversations, and always have a seat at the table because if you don’t, you might actually be on the menu,” Heller stressed. “We need to sit at the table so we can experience the shortcomings as well as the benefits of these programs.”
The DRIVE-Safe Act was also re-introduced under the Biden administration. The bill would allow under 21-year-old commercial truck drivers to operate across state lines. The bill has not been included in highway reauthorization talks, but, according to Heller, it could be what is needed to help alleviate some of the industry’s driver capacity concerns.
“Capacity is extremely tight right now,” Heller said. “I’ve been in this industry for years and this is the tightest I’ve seen it. So, what opens that up and creates more drivers to move more freight? Because the freight market is going to continue to grow.”
During a recent Radio Nemo segment, Mac asked listeners what they thought about the reintroduction of the DRIVE-Safe Act. The phone lines lit up.
The biggest surprise to Mac was the number of listeners who weren’t opposed to the bill, particularly since the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has long opposed this effort, calling the move "detrimental to highway safety."
“I was kind of amazed at the number of people who said they were fine with it but that they don’t think it solves the driver shortage problem,” Mac said, advising fleets that their drivers pay attention to and thoroughly read the legislation.
“You have some of the most informed people out there,” he added. “Take the time to ask your drivers where they stand on this stuff. They want to see younger people out there. They see that there is a gap, and they don’t see many younger people driving, and that concerns them.”
Heller drove home the fact that these 18-, 19- and 20-year-old drivers are not a new demographic in commercial trucking. They’re already driving in intrastate commerce. But the DRIVE-Safe Act takes it a step further and creates an apprenticeship program so younger drivers are better equipped to cross state lines.
“The reality is this is a good bill,” Heller stressed. “It puts technology on the trucks like AEBs, which TCA supports, as well as speed limiters and collision mitigation systems.
“Does it solve the [capacity] problem? No, but it does help the problem,” he continued. “It opens the door for people to enter the industry who may not have thought about it before.”