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Construction industry fights for more federal highway money

Freeway traffic drives along the construction zone in Kenosha recently. (Photo by Scott Anderson)

Freeway traffic drives along the construction zone in Kenosha recently. Representatives from the construction industry want money from a proposed federal tax on carbon producers to go directly to the Highway Trust Fund. (Photo by Scott Anderson)

By Sean Ryan

Construction industry representatives want every penny of a proposed federal tax on carbon producers to go to the Highway Trust Fund.

But according to a draft bill unveiled by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., the industry would have to make do with only $6.25 billion.

The federal government needs $76.1 billion in annual highway spending until 2026 to maintain national highways and eliminate a backlog of road and bridge projects, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The draft bill would levy annual taxes, called “allowances,” on companies and utilities that produce fuels or emit carbon from their facilities. The new fees, which would vary year to year, would give $6.25 billion to federal transportation planning and construction while also supporting clean energy research and energy efficiency grants, among other programs.

The money for the Highway Trust Fund represents a small share of that raised through the new system, said Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America. He said drivers ultimately would pay the tax when buying gas, so all the money should go to road projects.

“Any time you take money out of transportation and spend it elsewhere,” he said, “you are robbing funds from our underfunded transportation system.”

Highways should get some, but not all, of the money, said Steven Nadel, executive director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. It is appropriate to spend the money on developing new energy technology, he said, because those programs would make it cheaper to build and buy power from renewable energy systems.

Nadel said the bill would stop giving money to research and development in 2021, a deadline he wants extended by 10 years.

“While I wish we could take care of all of our research and development needs by 2021,” he said, “I doubt it will. So my question is: Why would it end?”

Tony Dorsey, spokesman for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said not only would the bill shortchange the industry, but it would set too many restrictions.

“The Highway Trust Fund is in trouble now,” he said, “and it needs additional revenue, and we need the revenue from the sale of those allowances to go into the Highway Trust Fund without any strings attached.”

The draft bill proposes $2.5 billion for projects to improve transportation safety and efficiency, $1.875 billion in federal grants for state and local governments and $1.875 billion for transportation planning.

All of those restrictions will make reducing car emissions a bigger goal in transportation planning, said Therese Langer, transportation project director for American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. She said setting aside the money for that goal justifies the use of the tax for road and transit projects and would result in more spending on transit and less on road expansion.

Langer said the rules guiding use of the money would not stifle improvements for highways and bridges.

“We’re all in favor of projects that can make the system more efficient, and we’re certainly in favor of keeping the state of roads and bridges in good repair,” she said. “But, historically, the way transportation planning has been, there is a tension between trying to keep the system efficient and energy efficient and the perceived need to keep expanding.”

Turmail said the ultimate cost increase at the pump would only make it more difficult to raise money specifically for highways.

“That small amount of money dedicated to it,” Turmail said, “will simply go a long way to increasing the skepticism among Americans to invest in our transportation system.”

2 comments

  1. Karen Jeffries

    The Secret Life of AAA – Your friend on the road is not a friend of the environment
    by Michael A. Rivlin (condensed from the full article)…
    .
    AAA — it dropped the name American Automobile Association a couple of years ago — is our friend on the road and the purported voice of all us American motorists, the self-styled “traveler’s champion,” the trusted folks 43 million people rely on for maps, insurance and all things related to travel. It is the second largest membership organization in the country. The only thing bigger is the Catholic Church.
    Using its members as collateral, AAA, its local affiliates, and its partners work to influence national law and policy, and not to the good of the planet. AAA weighs in on highway funding, suburban sprawl, mass transit, car design and safety, air pollution and global warming. “A lot of people belong to AAA because they think it’s a nice place to get Triptiks and traveler’s checks,” says Daniel Becker, director of Sierra Club’s global warming and energy program. “What they don’t know is that AAA is a lobbyist for more roads, more pollution and more gas guzzling.”

    When AAA was founded in 1902, its main business was putting up road signs. Then it started advocating construction of more and better roads. Eventually, it was lobbying in support of the interstate highway system. But as America turned its attention to environmental problems, AAA started lobbying to keep the funds raised through gas taxes and tolls — funds once used exclusively for highway construction — from being stolen away for public transit or land conservation. Eventually, its mission expanded to the point where the organization was promoting a full-scale transportation policy agenda, one that brings it into direct and frequent conflict with environmentalists.
    On the subject of highway congestion, AAA can be found on the opposite side of the fence from both environmentalists and urban planners. In recent years, land-use planners have asserted that new roads actually worsen congestion because they open up more land to real-estate development, which in turn puts still more cars on the roads. But AAA’s position has not substantially changed from the late 1980s. It argues that bottlenecks are a major cause of automobile pollution — so more roads must be built to eliminate them. Its 1988 “six-point strategy” for relieving congestion relied principally on new highways and outer loops around metropolitan areas. Twelve years and many miles of new road later, with congestion so bad that “road rage” is now part of the national vocabulary, AAA’s byword is still “increased roadway capacity.” Comments Paul Billings of the American Lung Association, “Building more roads to solve an air pollution problem is like buying a larger pair of pants to solve an obesity problem.”

    AAA and its affiliate clubs don’t fund TV ads, don’t have a PAC, and don’t make significant campaign contributions. Its lobbying staff is small; there are now only 12 people in the entire D.C. office. But what AAA does do very effectively is lend its name, its middle-American respectability, and the moral weight of those 43 million members to its transportation causes.

    AAA’s critics charge that it takes positions on transportation and the environment largely without the knowledge or permission of its members. AAA does survey its members, both at the national and local levels. According to a AAA public relations officer, this information is used to help determine national policy. But environmentalists say the “polls” are designed not to find out what the members are really thinking, but rather to yield results that will back up policy positions the organization has already adopted. These positions are formulated by AAA’s public and government relations committee, made up of about 20 top-level executives from the clubs. Final approval is left to delegates from the clubs.

    The CEO of the national office sits on the boards of a forest products company and a high-tech manufacturing company. Other executives and directors of the national office and the clubs have similar links to big business.

    From his office in AAA’s public affairs headquarters in D.C. Stephen Hayes is AAA’s managing director of public relations. AAA, he assures me, tries hard to “represent the broad interests of the motoring public.”

    But John Kaehny, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York City bike and pedestrian advocacy group, winces whenever he hears the affiliated New York Auto Club spokespeople say,”My parents are AAA members, and when I tell them what the AAA national office does, they go, ‘Oh my God, is that true?’ And that’s the reaction you get from almost everyone.”

    No assessment of AAA’s environmental agenda is complete without a look at its participation in the American Highway Users Alliance. For annual dues of somewhere between $25,000 and $49,999, AAA is a patron member of this powerful lobbying group. When Highway Users holds a meeting, it uses AAA’s deluxe conference room, and around the table gathers an improbable group with a highly misleading name. AAA and several of its affiliate clubs are the only members of Highway Users with any serious claim to represent ordinary drivers. Among the other members are Ford, General Motors, Goodyear, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Portland Cement Association, the Associated General Contractors of America, and a gaggle of truck and bus companies. More than three-quarters of the group’s funding comes from companies that build roads or supply the vehicles and fuels that ply them. The progressive organization Common Cause investigated the biggest PAC donors in the highway lobby during the period 1987–1997, and found that 7 of the top 10 were members of Highway Users.

    Hayes admits that AAA supports most Highway Users programs. But he insists that it neither signs off on nor agrees with every position Highway Users takes. Yet by joining the group, AAA has bought itself the services of William D. Fay, president and CEO of the group — a charismatic Capitol Hill lobbying pro whom Environmental Defense’s Michael Replogle describes as “an unrepentant apologist for sprawl and highway transportation.”

    Fay is a former conservative Republican congressional staffer. A decade ago, he led a coalition of dirty-air businesses trying to ensure that the provisions of the 1990 Clean Air Act would be, he says, “affordable as well as strong.” In fact, says Roy Kienitz of the progressive Surface Transportation Policy Project, behind closed doors Fay fought the new act tooth and nail. In 1995 Fay came to Highway Users, and, with his aggressive approach, reinvigorated what was by all accounts a moribund group. “I don’t mind getting in the gutter and battling people,” he says.

    Where Stephen Hayes implies that AAA keeps Highway Users at arm’s length, Fay tells a different story. AAA and its affiliate clubs, several of which are also members, “have been among our greatest supporters, because they just love the advocacy,” he tells me. “They love the aggressiveness we’ve brought to the debates.” According to Fay, the members of Highway Users are usually in agreement. And there has never been an issue in which he has had to pull back or modify his stance because AAA objected.
    AAA’s presence on Highway Users’ roster gives Fay the invaluable ability to preface every statement he makes on Capitol Hill with the claim that he is speaking on behalf of millions of highway users. “AAA has a credibility level that far exceeds mine,” he admits. Comments Kienitz, “AAA is a big part of Highway Users’ legitimacy. If you come in and say, ‘I’m from the national concrete pavement association and I’m here to tell you what’s good for America,’ any fool is going to say, ‘You’re here to tell me what’s good for concrete.'”

    Highway Users’ “freedom of mobility” philosophy is embodied in a 1999 radio commercial that evidently aspired to speak to the nation’s soccer moms. “For me and most working mothers,” its voice-over declared, “driving’s not an option — it’s a necessity. It’s the only way I can work full-time, run errands, and still have time left for Michael’s basketball games. … Maybe instead of telling us where and how to live, government should focus on improving roads and making driving easier.”

    In Highway Users’ view, new, improved, wider roads are safer roads. “Princess Diana died because of bad road design,” Fay tells me. Transportation money spent on anything but roads and road-going vehicles is wasted. (Highway Users does, however, enthusiastically support a road-dependent form of public transit: buses.)

    Does AAA really believe its members support this agenda? When I ask Hayes about AAA’s strange alliance with an industry lobbying group, he declines to comment.
    Hayes starts talking about suburban sprawl in language that sounds somehow familiar. “Whatever is done with regard to the congestion-slash-sprawl issue,” he says, “should be done while at the same time trying to preserve mobility. And this is not just a case of the wealthy suburban person. … It’s all of us, and a lot of it is the working poor, blue-collar America, the single mom with a couple of kids that has a job and she has to drop somebody off at day care and –” At this point, I remember where I’ve heard this line before. When I tell Hayes he’s repeating the Highway Users radio spot, he simply nods.

    A small number of AAA affiliate clubs — such as the Auto Club of New York, with many members from a transit-dependent area — support funding for buses, subways and trains. At one point, even Stephen Hayes tells me, “It might surprise people to know we’re actually quite supportive of mass transit.” But he adds quickly, “One of the harsh realities of American society right now is that the worldwide ridership of mass transit is pretty flat. So the system of highways and bridges and secondary roads is the workhorse of the system, and we feel it’s vital that it be properly maintained.”
    In fact, the idea that roads must always trump transit is a AAA theme. When Kienitz’s group issued a report in 1999 on the congestion caused by sprawl, AAA spokesman Bill Jackman commented, “Mass transit and bicycle paths aren’t going to make a dent on congestion.”

    AAA makes these views known whenever Congress debates the law that allocates federal transportation funds to the states. This law was traditionally referred to as “the highway bill” because it sent enormous amounts of federal funding into the highway system. But in 1991, a different version passed — called the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA (pronounced “iced tea”). For the first time, it allowed states and communities to use some of the funds for transit if they wished, as well as urban quality-of-life projects such as bike paths and control of polluted runoff from highways. Pro-transit activists considered it a landmark.

    When ISTEA was under debate, John Archer, then managing director of AAA’s government affairs office, complained to the Senate that ISTEA would “funnel too many highway dollars to mass transit. … It disregards the value Americans place on automotive travel.” Local clubs, including the Auto Club of New York and AAA Mid-Atlantic, spoke out against the bill, saying it would divert funds from safe roads.
    As for William Fay, he calls ISTEA “probably the lowest point in the highway lobby’s history.” He adds, “When I was hired, my chief responsibility was to turn that around. They were very clear about that.” In 1997, when Congress began considering ISTEA’s successor, Fay stepped up to the plate. In testimony before Rep. Bud Shuster’s (R-Penn.) committee on transportation and infrastructure, for instance, Fay claimed that without more highway funding, life would be harder for working parents, vacations more expensive, and “medical care less accessible for many rural Americans.” Meanwhile, AAA’s D.C. office kept up a stream of editorials on the need for highway funding, which it distributed to affiliate clubs for their magazines and newsletters.

    When the new funding bill was signed into law in 1998, Fay was delighted. The new law retained the states’ ability to fund transit. But it was among the largest infrastructure programs in American history, providing huge sums of new money — most of it for roads.

    Critics see an essential hypocrisy at AAA’s heart, for it poses as a consumer advocate yet opposes laws that would lead to cleaner air and a healthier environment for those same consumers. By pursuing the same goals as the auto, oil and road-building industries, AAA benefits directly. The more cars there are on the roads, and the more roads there are for those cars to travel, the more revenue it earns.

    (Michael A. Rivlin (mrivlin@home.com) is an independent journalist and senior correspondent of the Amicus Journal, where this article originally appeared. This article was made possible through the generosity of the Josephine Patterson Albright Fund.)

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