ATRI Weighs In on Infrastructure

ATRI Weighs In on Infrastructure

There were few surprises among the recommendations in a recent report by the American Transportation Research Institute.

The ATRI is the research organization of the trucking industry and it released on Nov. 8 a 63-page report called “A Framework for Infrastructure Funding.” The report was meant to address the perennial concern about the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and the lack of funds to adequately fix it.

Arkansans have their own ongoing issue with state funding for their own crumbling infrastructure. Scott Bennett, the director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation, said the state needs to double its current $400 million in annual revenue to properly maintain, improve and/or replace its roads and bridges.

The report showed that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s infrastructure a D grade, which is quite bad. The Federal Highway Administration says U.S. drivers logged 3.2 trillion miles in 2016. The ATRI found that 40 percent of urban highways are regularly congested to the tune of $160 billion in lost fuel and time every year, and 100 of the worst truck bottlenecks in the U.S. are — no surprise — in urban areas.

The trucking industry obviously has a big stake in the nation’s infrastructure because trucks have to deal with potholes, traffic bottlenecks and poor logistics daily.

President Donald Trump once spoke of a 10-year, $1 trillion infrastructure program that relied on private investments, but that idea stalled. There seems to be little stomach for raising the federal fuel tax to generate the needed revenue, or at least a large portion of it; Arkansas’ powers-that-be have the same reluctance.

The ATRI does not. Its first recommendation was to raise the tax on gasoline and diesel and then tie the tax to inflation so it goes up as needed.

The federal fuel tax has not been raised since 1993, while 39 states have raised their rates since then, including Arkansas in 2001. The federal rates are currently 18.4 cents for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel, while the state rates are 21.8 cents and 22.8 cents.

In 2016, the Highway Trust Fund — where all fuel taxes go — brought in about $35 billion in revenue compared with $44.7 billion in expenditures. The shortfall was filled by Congress transferring money from general funds.

The current fuel tax rates aren’t sufficient because of decades of improving fuel efficiency. In 1993, the gasoline tax provided an average of $64 for every 10,000 miles driven; in 2014, that figure had fallen to $50 because cars were getting about 10 more miles per gallon.

Raising the fuel tax is the best idea, the ATRI said, because the system of collecting the money is already in place and is efficient. Collecting it costs approximately 0.2 percent of the total revenue, as opposed to the costs of toll collection, which the ATRI loathes because it can be 20 percent or more.

The ATRI report also said, as far as Arkansas is concerned, raising fuel tax revenue would create as many as 6,187 jobs on in-state highway projects.

The fuel tax wasn’t the ATRI’s only recommendation because even that wouldn’t cover the shortfall that experts expect in the coming years. The ATRI said that even with an increase of 20 cents a gallon in the fuel tax — and who wants that? — the Highway Trust Fund would still be $730 billion short of balanced by 2026.

The ATRI also recommended implementing registration fees for the 250 million or so vehicles in the U.S. A $20 registration fee would raise $50 billion by 2026, while a $100 fee would raise $250 billion.

ATRI also suggests rebranding fuel taxes as more palatable “user fees.”

Any new revenue would be federal, so Arkansas would still have to raise the 20 percent state match to pay for in-state projects, such as the Great River Bridge in southeast Arkansas ($910 million price tag) or the Interstate 49 bridge in the Fort Smith area ($380 million).