Trucking and Trump: An Infrastructure Match

The American Trucking Associations wasted little time reacting to Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election Nov. 8.

The ATA, the national advocacy group of the trucking industry, sent out a news release early Wednesday congratulating the Republican on his victory. It said members of the ATA had already met with the Trump transition team, and it was looking forward to working with the new administration on trucking industry issues.

“During the campaign, [Trump] highlighted the need to create jobs and recognized that improving our nation’s infrastructure is critical to strengthening the economy,” ATA President and CEO Chris Spear said in the release. “As the industry that moves nearly 70 percent of our nation’s freight and is a key economic driver, we look forward to working with President-elect Trump on a host of issues, including long-term, sustainable infrastructure funding, tax reform and fair and free trade.”

It’s understandable that the trucking industry would be hopeful and eager to work with Trump, who has been a proponent of improving the nation’s infrastructure. In his victory speech early Wednesday, the first policy issue he mentioned was infrastructure.

“We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” Trump said. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

In October, Trump outlined his plans for his first 100 days in office; he said he wanted to encourage private investment in infrastructure to facilitate $1 trillion in improvements over the next 10 years. Remember, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act last December, a bill that called for $305 billion in infrastructure spending ($205 billion of which is designated for highways) during the next five years.

A member of Trump’s team mentioned Wednesday the possibility of creating an infrastructure bank to help fund investments. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had suggested the same during the campaign.

Of course, it is well documented how badly infrastructure improvements are needed. The Highway Trust Fund, which collects federal gas and diesel taxes that haven’t been adjusted for inflation or changing driving metrics since 1993, is badly underfunded and no one seems very interested in responsibly addressing that issue.

The FAST Act scraped together the $305 billion from a variety of sources because there was no way a tax increase was passing.

(It’s worth noting that Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson did the same cobbling together of sources to raise money for the state’s highway fund rather than raising the fuel tax this year.)

The FAST Act did stop a deplorable run of 35 short-term spending bills passed when Congress was unable to come to a longer-term solution for six years.

The Republican-controlled Congress seems less enthusiastic about attacking the infrastructure problem than does the incoming president. Maybe that lack of enthusiasm is more about a reluctance to fund the infrastructure solution, or issues such as Obamacare and the U.S. Supreme Court are just much more important to Republicans.

The Atlantic magazine pointed out that House Speaker Paul Ryan, when asked in September if he would work with Trump on a mega-billion-dollar infrastructure bill, laughed. Not a good sign.

“Just so you know, we just passed the biggest highway bill since the 1990s,” Ryan said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said infrastructure improvements weren’t a top priority. Also not a good sign.

That’s not to say something won’t eventually get done. Congress has shown — with the 35 short-term funding fixes in the six years before the FAST Act’s passage — that it won’t really do anything about infrastructure investment until it absolutely has to and then it won’t just use the most straightforward solution at hand: raising the gas and diesel tax and tying future increases to inflation.

But raising the fuel tax is the sustainable, long-term infrastructure funding answer Spear was preaching about in his statement on Nov. 9. The ATA is on record as supporting the use of the fuel tax as the “primary source” of improvement funding.