AASHTO executive director Tymon highlights various priorities for surface transportation in 2019

Even though the federal government shutdown is approaching its third week that does not deter from the many facets of surface transportation infrastructure that will be addressed in 2019.

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Even though the federal government shutdown is approaching its third week that does not deter from the many facets of surface transportation infrastructure that will be addressed in 2019.

That was a major takeaway from on an AASHTO-hosted media conference call yesterday. Tymon previously served as the organization’s Chief Operating Officer and Director of Policy and Management and replaced Bud Wright, who retired at the end of 2018.

The primary topic Tymon addressed was AASHTO’s role in continuing to be a strong advocate for a federal surface transportation program that is supported by a solvent and robust Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which accounts for 95% of federal funding for surface transportation and is supported by the federal gasoline tax.

But with this tax not having been raised since 1993, there has been a longstanding impasse in Congress, regarding getting on a path to solid infrastructure funding continuity. Tymon believes this is something that can, and needs, to change.

“Federal transportation infrastructure investment has traditionally unified political parties around the common belief that transportation serves all Americans,” he said on the call. “AASHTO believes that despite the current state of politics in Washington, transportation can be a common ground issue that leads to real progress this year.”

What’s more, he explained that this type of progress has occurred at the state level, in that since 2013 there have been 27 states, as well as Washington, D.C., vote to increase their motor fuel taxes at the state level.

“Some of them are traditionally blue states and some are traditionally red states, and it shows that both political parties have an interest in investing in infrastructure and can exercise the political will that is necessary to raise the revenue to help fund that type of investment,” said Tymon. “The state governments are doing it, while the federal government is walking away from their own responsibilities. And while states cover more than half the costs to build, operate, maintain highways and bridges, they cannot do this work alone….they need a strong federal partner.” 

But with the federal gasoline tax not having been raised since 1993, coupled with the HTF having been bailed out by numerous cash transfers by the United States General Treasury Fund, it has led to a situation in which the HTF is spending between $10 billion-to-$15 billion per year more than it takes in from new revenues via the gasoline tax.

Tymon stated this is not a sustainable approach, noting that AASHTO will continue to work with Congress and the White House to help find a reliable and robust source of funding that will put the HTF back on solvent ground. 

“The unpredictability that is associated with an insolvent trust fund is really having an impact on states and localities as they attempt to plan for major transportation projects that stretch over several years,” said Tymon.

Given the ongoing shortage of federal dollars for the HTF, Tymon said it is clear that a major challenge remains, with the need for a long term sustainable source of funding for the federal HTF that is going to support the majority of surface trans programs.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which was passed at the end of 2017 and took effect in 2018, noted Tymon, does not impact the ability to find a sustainable, long-term source of funding.

“The gas tax is certainly one of those options that Congress is going to look at,” he said. “It is the option that has done well by those programs going back 60 years, and it has been how we built the interstates and how we provided a substantial amount of assistance to all transit agencies. It is something that is known and works in a very efficient way to collect revenue from system users and then redistribute it out to states and localities and reinvest those user fees into the system.”

But he observed that over the years, things are changing, perhaps most notably with vehicle fleets becoming more efficient, with different ways of fleets being powered, including through electric- or battery-operated vehicles or natural gas.

And this has led to the need to explore other options that are being put on the funding table, like a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax, which has been championed by Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee.

“Rep. Graves has said more needs to be done on the VMT side, so we can plan for the future,” he said. “There are several states doing some very interesting pilot program work on VMT, and there are a lot of lessons we can learn from that as we move forward. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), House T&I Committee Chairman, has pushed for a nationwide VMT program, too. That is another area that should be explored in the next reauthorization bill; it is a voluntary nationwide program that takes some of these experiences and lessons learned in these state and regional pilot programs going on and I think it is a worthwhile effort.”

Another key infrastructure-related issue highlighted by Tymon is whether or not a bill for a new federal infrastructure package gets done in 2019, which, he said, is where the tax bill from last year may have an impact on Congress’s ability to put a large infrastructure package into law this year.

“That bill has placed a highlight on deficit spending, and those are questions Congress will face this year, in that will there be a willingness to spend for a large infrastructure package this year?” asked Tymon. “If not, what are the offsets, or revenue sources, to do a larger infrastructure package this year? It will be interesting to see how that debate occurs this year. I think they will have that conversation. Once we get through this shutdown, it will be one of the first areas, House Democrats especially, will want to tackle. I think there is a pretty decent chance of getting something across the finish line.”

As for the shutdown, Tymon said there is a correlation to it and the White House, in recent weeks, having expressing a desire for increased infrastructure investment.

“I think that my experience is that once we get through these trying time like this shutdown, they [Congress and the White House] usually try to find some areas of common ground…and we know they are not as dysfunctional as they seem,” he said.

“This is an opportunity for infrastructure to step into that role and serve as a way for the parties to come together and for Congress and the White House to push forward with some type of infrastructure package that shows there is something they can agree on and work towards.”


About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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