ATA Wrong on Bingaman Amendment

Over the last few years the American Trucking Association (ATA) has not exactly been the best team player in the transportation world. Earlier this month ATA President Bill Graves sent a letter to Congress outlining his priorities for a new transportation bill. Many of the association’s priorities are excellent. ATA wants to preserve the New National Freight Program; the group recommends refraining from using highway funding for non-highway purposes; ATA also recommends a fair compliance program from FMCSA.

However, there is one significant area where the group is putting its interests above the rest of the U.S. transportation community. This is ATA’s support for the Bingaman amendment. The trucking group has written several letters to Congress justifying the Bingaman amendment. Opposing the Bingaman amendment is a coalition including Brookings, the Bipartisan Policy Center, Building America’s Future, Reason, former U.S. DOT Secretary Mary Peters, AASHTO, ARTBA, a number of state DOT’s and many others who wrote a joint-letter stating their opposition.

Transportation revenue is declining while transportation needs are increasing. The main federal transportation funding resource is the gas tax. The federal gas tax has not been increased since 1992. As a result of inflation and more fuel-efficient vehicles, the gas tax raises less than half the actual revenue it raised in 1992. Currently there is no political will to raise the gas tax. Congress is against it; President Obama is against it. (One of the President’s advisors falsely attacked Governor Romney for raising the gas tax in Massachusetts. Romney increased the environmental clean up fund by two cents not the actual gas tax. And the actual out of pocket increase to drivers was 9% not 400% as Obama’s surrogates complain.) Even if we increased the gas tax 15 cents and indexed it to inflation, (which has a zero percent chance of happening) it would still be only a temporary solution because of increasing fuel efficiency. As the federal government is either unwilling or unable to act, States should be allowed to use any and all resources to improve and maintain their highway networks.

Trucks are not the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. However, trucks degrade highways exponentially compared to cars. As I wrote in The Senate’s Assault on Transportation Public-Private Partnerships:

Trucks contribute a disproportionate share of wear and tear to highways. Pavement lasts two years longer on a section of the Georgia 400 that restricts trucks compared to a section that trucks use. Every 10% increase in a truck’s weight causes 40% more wear and tear on a highway. Under the fuel
tax system, trucks do not pay a proportionate share. Trucks are somewhat less fuel-efficient than cars but degrade highways substantially more than cars. Truckers oppose toll-roads because they will have to pay something closer to their proportionate share. Toll-roads typically charge 5-axle trucks about four times as much as automobiles. The American Trucking Association is effectively trying to ensure that truckers do not pay their fair share of highway maintenance costs.

Many of ATA’s attacks are false. The pro-states choice coalition letter is available here. My colleague Bob Poole has more on the Bingaman Amendment here.

One of the most ridiculous arguments of the Pro-Bingaman forces is that the Indiana Toll Road lease was improper. First, the Indiana Toll Road was not built with federal gas taxes. The Indiana Toll Road preceded the interstate system and was grandfathered in because of the location and high quality of the highway. The state of Indiana paid 100% of the road’s construction costs and the state should be free to run this highway as it sees fit. The Bingaman letter also claims that tolls on the highway have doubled. Not exactly. Tolls have increased for trucks but not for cars. In fact the two-axle toll rate of 3 cents per mile is one of the lowest toll rates in the country. The publicly owned Ohio Turnpike charges 5 cents per mile while the publicly owned New Jersey turnpike charges 9 cents per mile. And contrary to the Bingaman claims, much of the proceeds from the lease were spent to upgrade the toll road and related infrastructure.

The letter makes several other misleading claims. It misinterprets a GAO report to justify its argument that highways should be treated differently from other assets. The ATA also wants the federal government to develop policies telling the states how to operate highways that the states own and operate. The letter ends with a bogus claim on how the Bingaman amendment protects the motoring public.

Truckers are the only group protected by the Bingaman amendment. Truckers transport crucial goods for our economy. The trucking industry is underappreciated considering its importance to our economy. But this does not mean that truckers should be subsidized while the rest of the motoring public is left holding the bag. ATA knows there is no will to raise the gas tax. But the agency likes the gas tax because it provides a great deal for its members.

According to Politico’s Morning Transportation, in addition to the two Pro-Bingaman letters, ATA sent out a press release from Chairman Dan England that read, “The trucking industry has consistently delivered for members of Congress who have asked for our support in advancing a long-term surface transportation bill. So now it is time for those leaders to deliver for trucking.” ATA later changed the second half of the quote to, “So now we hope the conferees will complete a bill that moves us towards safer, less congested highways.” Supposedly the first version was a draft. Maybe, but the original version reflects ATA’s view that since it contributes to politicians, those politicians should do as ATA wants regardless of whether it is good policy or benefits transportation in any way.

Our U.S. transportation system is critical for all users. All groups should be working together. A single group lobbying for a bogus amendment that benefits only that group is not helping the U.S. solve its transportation challenges.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Assistant Director of Transportation Policy at Reason Foundation a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. Feigenbaum has a diverse background researching and implementing transportation issues including revenue and finance, public-private partnerships, highways, transit, high-speed rail, ports, intelligent transportation systems, land use, and local policymaking.