By the way: Highway bill to expire in 365 days

Updated Oct 2, 2013

If Congress can’t even keep the doors of the federal government open, what are the chances for a substantial new highway bill by this time next year? What’s the alternative?

House of cards?House of cards?

While the political class plays chicken over healthcare and continuing resolutions and debt ceilings, Oct. 1 also starts the clock on the end of MAP-21: 365 days and counting until the federal government’s authority to tax and spend on transportation projects expires.

The easy response is ‘good riddance.’ But seriously: Is the trucking industry prepared to deal with chaos?

Maybe ‘chaos’ is too strong. Maybe orange barrels for hundreds and hundreds of miles won’t be a big problem. Maybe it’s better if state legislatures set all fuel taxes and determine spending, with no concern for what happens just across the state line.

Trucking will adjust rates accordingly, shippers will accept the math and consumers will understand that prices must go up. And we’ll all have a merry April Fool’s Day.

Believe it or not, much of the freight that moves on trucks today was carried by train through the end of World War II. In 1945 rail’s freight revenue was nine times higher than that of intercity trucking companies. But for-hire motor carriers more than doubled their intercity revenue during the 1950s, while freight rail revenue stalled. By the 1960s most manufactured goods moved by truck. What happened? The U.S. got serious about building roads and truckers seized the opportunity superhighways provided.

And communities quickly discovered that a nice four-lane wasn’t just a matter of prestige. Good highway access meant economic development, so everybody wanted it and elected officials were glad to deliver and take credit.

The catch is finding enough tax money to go around. Doling out highway project dollars has always been political, so much so that Congress was shamed into eliminating earmarks. (And it could be argued that doing away with pet projects also did away with a key mechanism for spreading around the “bipartisanship”—wink, wink.)

Of course, someone still has to decide where the money is going, and post-pork policy has shifted that burden to the administration. So Peoria, Ill., gets a disproportionate amount of discretionary spending because its projects were more worthy than most, not because it was the home district of a congressman who became the Obama administration’s first secretary of transportation—wink, wink. Let’s not get into that transportation secretary’s tendency to push plans for rail and marine projects, based on how many trucks these would take off the road.

Well, let’s not get into it other than as a lesson learned on the importance of having a voice on Capitol Hill.

Lots of people have made lots of money building public roads. And they still want Congress to kick in plenty of federal funding, just like Congress always has. Roads are complicated to build and maintain, so everyone from the design engineers to the asphalt suppliers to the companies that make reflective tape are sending lobbyists to Washington. Those are good allies for trucking to have.

But road builders don’t care where the money comes from, as long as it’s coming. Toll revenue spends just like fuel tax money, after all. Private capital spends just like public funds.

Developing sustainable, predictable funding for a multi-year transportation plan is where the real action should be in the coming year, and trucking has to be prepared and involved.

Piecemeal local government planning and private management of cherry-picked, profitable segments cannot maintain the continental highway system trucking depends on. That’s a job for a fair and focused Congress—and that’s why we all should be worried.