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A broken highway system needs immediate repair

By on May 9, 2014

U.S. highways are where truck drivers get their work done, and in the past few years, the condition of the roads they travel has steadily deteriorated. Road King spoke to Greg Cohen, President and CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA) about current problems with highway infrastructure and how to address them.

Q What are AHUA’s goals regarding infrastructure?

A I think the most important thing is the Highway Trust Fund, a federal account that has existed since 1956. It was developed to construct and maintain the highway system and other major roads. That fund is basically on life support. For 52 years it survived quite well with revenue from the gasoline and diesel tax and other user fees. Since 2008 it has been insolvent and been bailed out by Congress to keep our highways funded.

We believe this fund is critical. It is the funding mechanism for our roads, and if you don’t have this then you have a bunch of toll roads in place of our Interstate Highway System. In our view, a national system of untolled roads is better for trucking, for business in general and for the public.

Q How did the Highway Trust Fund get to this point?

A Fuel taxes have not been raised since 1993. Unlike most taxes, the fuel tax is not adjusted for inflation or needs, so it has declined in real dollar value by almost half. We need to raise that tax or come up with some way to adjust on an annual basis for things like inflation, fuel economy and road needs. That is something Congress has failed to do. Because they haven’t had the political courage to raise this tax, they borrowed money from elsewhere in the federal budget. Those funds have dried up now too.

Q How does this fit in with AHUA’s work to ensure safe roads?

A There are strong arguments about the damage that crumbling infrastructure has on vehicles, its unpredictable effects on logistics, congestion and our need for infrastructure that can support a 21st century economy. But, we should not forget that we have a very serious safety problem on our roads. Each year, 33,000 people don’t make it home to their loved ones, and we know that as much as 30 percent of those crashes are related to poor road conditions. There is a lot of attention on improving driver behavior and that’s a good thing. But there needs to be more attention paid to the fact that in nearly one in three of these crashes, something can be done on roads to make those accidents more survivable.

That includes having a safe clear zone on each side of the road with full shoulder, signs and markings that are visible and clear. Installing cost effective and affordable cable median guardrails has reduced the number of head-on crashes remarkably in states that have them. All of those things are funded under the federal program, as well as state programs.

Q How does the trucking industry fit in with AHUA’s goals?

A We may be one of the only organizations where representatives from the ATA, OOIDA and NATSO can sit together at a table in agreement. The trucking industry has been very clear in its support of a strong federal program for infrastructure. In the past, we had a chicken and egg argument over which comes first, reforming the federal program or increasing investment in it. In 2012, Congress chose to  reform the program first by eliminating less important programs, focusing investments on major routes used by trucks and by streamlining the lengthy environmental reviews that delay projects. These reforms are being implemented by DOT. Now it’s time to pay more, even as we continue to seek  policy changes.

Paying a few more cents a gallon is a better option than raising some other truck-specific fee, such as increasing the already-too-high 12 percent sales tax on trucks, or tolling the Interstate Highway System. The industry has made it clear that it is willing to pay its fair share, but in return expects that the funds will be invested in roads that trucks use. That is a very reasonable position.

Q What can an individual driver do to get better roads?

A Truckers are the most outspoken advocates for better roads and are certainly among the most credible in talking to officials about what it is like out there. Any trucker who sees the need should call their representative in Congress at (202) 224-3121 and tell them that a strong national highway system is worth paying for. Federal leadership is certainly something the U.S. Constitution encourages — Article I calls for regulation of interstate commerce and the building of roads. There are threats to the highway system out there and ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

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