The new year has kicked off with a surging stock market, an upward trending labor market and economic optimism sparked by the first reform of our tax code in three decades. This robust growth must be matched by a next-century national infrastructure. President Trump is showing strong leadership again as he strives to “reclaim our building heritage" with a $1.5 trillion investment to build a next-century national infrastructure.
This couldn't come at a more critical time. The highways, bridges, and waterways that have rapidly deteriorated over many years are in such disrepair that The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a dismal D+ on its 2017 report card. It’s costing us dearly—our deficient roadway system alone is costing the average American motorist nearly $1,500 a year in lost time, wasted gas, maintenance, and repairs.
Fortunately, the White House will soon unveil its plan to help rebuild America’s infrastructure. The foremost question will be how to pay for it. In his State of the Union address, President Trump has urged that federal dollars be partnered with state and local government investments. He has also alluded to private sector investments as well. Some policymakers suggest highway toll collection as one path. But the isolated costs of tolling are significantly greater than the cost of collecting other user fees. Furthermore, tolls cause motorists to use alternative routes that are generally less safe and not as well constructed. Congress can look in its own backyard where the toll for driving less than 10 miles one way on I-66 express lanes in Northern Virginia continues to regularly hit rates north of $35, even reaching $46.75 at its peak. One driver stuck in traffic best summed it up in a tweet, #highwayrobbery.
We need a better solution.
Just as the successful tax code overhaul was a bold vision that touched all Americans, we need an infrastructure reform plan that will enlist and rally the country to rebuild our transit systems for the long term. The trucking industry, which represents 7.4 million employees and 1 in 16 U.S. jobs, is ready to step up and invest more in the highway system, so that we can continue to deliver our nation’s freight safely and on time.
The road to a better future begins by giving Americans back their time and their money. All Americans, whether they drive a car, a truck, or use transit, would benefit from better highways. To achieve that vision, we strongly believe that a user fee is the most efficient and most conservative approach to paying for any shared asset.
We propose a modest increase in user fees over a period of ten years to generate sufficient revenue to both ensure the long-term future of our infrastructure and begin to address major transportation capacity challenges, including the serious highway bottlenecks that are responsible for a disproportionate share of congestion that plague commuters and truckers alike. The Build America Fund—a new 20 cent per gallon fee would be built into the price of transportation fuels collected from wholesalers. The fee would be phased in over four years (five cent increase per year) beginning in 2019. Once fully phased in, the fee will be indexed to both inflation and improvements in fuel efficiency.
As an industry, truckers put their money where their mouth is. We are among the heaviest users of our nation’s highways and we already pay nearly half of the federal highway user fees. Under our plan, the average weekly cost for a tractor-semitrailer driver would be around $40.44. The average box truck driver will pay $6.75 per week. The average passenger vehicle driver would pay just $2.00 per week—less than a latte.
Compare that to the cost of inaction — $1,500 annually in maintenance, repairs, wasted gas and lost time, compared to $100 per year to travel on a safe and efficient highway system. Once we reach solvency to tackle our infrastructure challenges, we could effectively end the user fee program or even sunset it.
A user fee is the most fiscally conservative, efficient and viable solution to rebuilding our infrastructure. Ninety-nine cents of every dollar goes immediately to its intended purpose of road maintenance. By contrast, as much as 33 cents of every dollar collected by tolls is squandered on administrative and overhead costs. Historically, the user fee has bipartisan support. Former President Reagan twice proposed a user fee that was supported by Democrats and Republicans, organized labor and the business community. Today, it is well aligned with increasing motorist frustration.
A June 2017 national survey found that 57 percent of Americans agree that a 20-cent per gallon “Build America Fee” is the best option to fund the nation’s needed four trillion dollars of road, bridge and highway improvements. A strong 67 percent of Americans support the Build America Fund idea when they learn that it would result in the government borrowing less money and reducing the debt burden on future generations.
America, once known as the temple of invention and industry, has long been criticized for not “making” things anymore. Now is the time for all of us to join together to rebuild America and write the next chapter in our prosperity.
Chris Spear is president and CEO of American Trucking Associations.
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