Senate Commerce Examines Infrastructure Needs

Senate Commerce Examines Infrastructure Needs

February 15, 2019  | Hayley Burton

February 14, 2019

Yesterday, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, convened a hearing titled, “America’s Infrastructure Needs: Keeping Pace with a Growing Economy.” The hearing examined current and future issues regarding America’s infrastructure, and discussed opportunities for spearheading improvement, including funding strategies.

In their opening remarks, both Chairman Wicker and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) recognized improving infrastructure as a bipartisan issue.

Wicker said, “Fortunately, improving our infrastructure is an area where bipartisan agreement and cooperation can be found. This committee already has built upon and will continue to build on this history of bipartisanship as it relates to transportation and infrastructure legislation.”

Referencing the past month with the shutdown, Cantwell cautioned, “I think we got a very clear look at what happens when transportation doesn’t work… The shutdown is a wakeup call for us that says we have to invest in these critical aspects of infrastructure to move our economy forward. I look forward to working with the Chairman and the members of this committee on our economic competitiveness as a nation.”

Five witnesses, representing ports, railroad, cable, trucking, and trade, gave testimony about the need to continue investing in America’s infrastructure

William Friedman, of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) (testimony here), stated that a major issue for the country’s ports are last- and first-mile connectivity, along with freight bottlenecks and a lack of funding for port-related projects. To remedy this issue, the AAPA favors federal grant programs and lifting the 10 percent funding cap for non-highway projects in the INFRA program, which he feels favors trucking and creates funding inequalities for ports. Friedman recommended, “All freight program funding should be 100 percent multimodal and the cap on INFRA grants and the program formula should be lifted.” The APA supports looking broadly at both fuel tax increase and a vehicle miles traveled fee.

Knowing trucks share this connectivity problem with the ports, Cantwell questioned Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Association (ATA) (written testimony here). Spear took a different approach and opposed lifting the 10 percent cap on revenue for non-highway projects. He reasoned that more efficient ports benefit trucking, but similarly, more efficient highways, roads, and bridges, benefit the ports. Due to the interrelatedness of the system, Spear said, “if everybody is contributing to the cause and funding a robust infrastructure bill, you’ll see efficiencies across the board.”

Spear does, however, support an immediate increase in user charges. He advocated for the Build America Fund, which includes a modest increase on the cost of fuel that would generate $340 billion over the course of 10 years. Referring to the Build America Fund, Spear said, “It shores up the Highway Trust Fund, which will go broke in just a couple years without action and it doesn’t add one dime to our nation’s debt.” He also emphasized a new fee on hybrid and electric vehicles, repeal of the federal excise tax on trucking equipment, and a new Nation Priorities Program (NPP) for freight bottlenecks.

Former chairman John Thune (R-SD), brought up the more than 25 percent of truck-miles-travel that happen on rural road networks and questioned how this might fit into funding opportunities to strengthen rural infrastructure. Spear recognized difficulties for rural states with low tax bases and again reemphasized the need for federal funding to make interstate commerce possible for all states.

A number of questions were directed towards Matthew Polka, the President and Chief Executive Officer for the American Cable Association (written testimony here), regarding issues with connectivity and broadband. Concerns were raised about allocating funds for cable without having accurate information as to where coverage deficits are occurring. Polka said, while they have general ideas, an infrastructure program could help map exactly which homes are served and which homes aren’t to know where to allocate funds. Wicker suggested Polka come back with specific legislation recommendations.

Ian Jeffries, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Association of American Railroads (AAR) (written testimony here), talked with pride about the about the private funding and self-sufficiency of freight rail. But, with long-term demand on freight expected to increase, as well as a forecasted 37 percent rise in tonnage by 2040, there are challenges ahead to maintain rail’s high quality of service. When asked about an infrastructure bill, Jeffries supposed the INFRA grant program. He also urged Congress to develop a user fee to account for users’ impact on infrastructure, whether that be a vehicles miles traveled fee or weight distance fee. The AAR supports the fuel tax as a short-term solution, but under the condition that a more accurate user fee be proposed to account for the longer-term future. For Jeffries, trends away from user-pay requirements favor trucks and put other modes at a disadvantage. The AAR also supports investments to ports and highways, recognizing these systems combine with rail to form the nation’s integrated freight supply chain.

Adding to the others remarks on a tax increase or VMT fee, Larry Willis, President of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (written testimony here), noted that fairness is key. He emphasized the need for any tax increase or fee to be based on increasing revenues for infrastructure investment. For him, “making sure we do it in a way that actually increases the deposits going in and isn’t just transferring from a gas tax to VMT” is especially important.

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