The President and some of his allies in Congress have indicated that they intend to pursue infrastructure legislation in the opening weeks of 2018.
Other GOP leaders, fresh off a big win on comprehensive tax reform, have said that they would prefer to pursue “welfare reform” initiatives to limit federal spending growth on programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as “food stamps”).
Both of these initiatives would require Democratic support to pass, and although this may be difficult to come by in an election year, infrastructure legislation is far more likely to attract bipartisan support than welfare reform.
While infrastructure funding ranks among the top issues for truckstops and travel plaza operators, it’s just one of many issues in which NATSO will engage in 2018.
Here’s an overview of the top NATSO issues that will be in play this year.
The federal excise tax on a gallon of gas was last increased to 18.4 cents almost 25 years ago. As a result, the federal investment in transportation is less than half of what it was when the tax was increased in 1994. As states shoulder more of their infrastructure construction costs, they are more likely to raise their state motor fuels taxes, creating greater tax disparities between states, or add new toll roads. For years, NATSO has supported an increase in the federal fuels tax along with the American Trucking Associations (ATA), U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.
The Trump Administration is pressing Congress to enact an infrastructure bill, and we expect to see a policy proposal from the Administration in the first quarter of 2018 now that Congress has passed comprehensive tax reform legislation.
Although we don’t know the details of how it will be funded, the President’s infrastructure proposal is likely to rely on states to shoulder a greater share of the infrastructure burden. This is likely to include liberalizing restrictions on states’ ability to raise money from non-fuel tax sources, such as tolling existing Interstates and commercializing Interstate rest areas. NATSO strongly opposes these policies; they would crush many small businesses and the towns and communities they serve.
NATSO will continue to advocate for Congress to increase the gas and diesel taxes to ensure that transportation revenue in the United States is self-sustaining and raised efficiently.
The Federal Highway Administration in October issued a notice soliciting State Departments of Transportation participation in the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP), which would permit three states to collect tolls on existing Interstate highways. States have until Feb. 20 to submit applications for the three available slots.
Tolling federal interstates remains prohibited under federal law, subject to certain limited exceptions, such as the ISRRPP. But with a number of states eyeing this pilot program, NATSO along with the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, will continue to oppose tolling existing Interstates. Rather than expanding options for tolling Interstates, Congress should move in the other direction and repeal the ISRRPP –during the program’s 20-year history not a single state has successfully implemented tolls due to strong public opposition
Rest Area Commercialization
With state and federal transportation revenues continuing to decline, states will continue to ask for more flexibility in funding projects such as rest areas.
Interest in commercial rest areas resurfaced in mid-2017, when the Trump Administration released its 2018 budget proposal indicating that the Administration would like to "liberalize tolling policy and allow private investment in rest areas." The President also has advocated for asset recycling, which funds new infrastructure and revitalizes existing infrastructure through the sale or lease of public assets, which could lead to commercial rest areas. NATSO strongly opposes asset recycling as a means of paying for surface transportation improvements.
Relatedly, some state and federal agencies seeking to expand commercial truck parking capacity incorrectly view commercial rest areas as a means of doing so. In fact, commercial rest areas would stunt any further private investment in truck parking, which is exactly the wrong approach when private companies provide more than 90 percent of truck parking capacity in the United States.
The last time Congress considered overturning the ban on commercial rest areas in 2012 it was defeated resoundingly by a vote of 12-86.
While this overwhelming margin makes the topic somewhat toxic, NATSO along with its coalition of like-minded business groups representing fuel retailers, convenience stores, restaurants, hotels, blind entrepreneurs and local governments is fighting these renewed efforts to commercialize rest areas.
We continue to meet with elected officials and regulators to educate them about the harmful effects that commercial rest areas would have on interstate-exit based businesses, as well as on the towns and local communities that they support.
Fuel marketers dodged a number of bullets in 2017, and the industry will continue to draw fire next year. Many forward-thinking marketers have invested substantial resources over the past decade in renewable fuels blending infrastructure, and these investments have generally paid off. The RFS, in conjunction with the biodiesel tax credit, has been doing what it was designed to do: incentivize marketers to incorporate more renewable fuel into their fuel supply in a manner that lowers prices for consumers and increases margins and overall volume for retailers. In 2017, NATSO and our allies successfully pushed back against attempts to undercut the RFS (for example, NATSO opposed shifting downstream the compliance responsibility under the RFS, known as the “point of obligation”); I These types of battle are likely to continue in 2018.
NATSO also has worked hard to educate members of Congress on the benefits of the biodiesel tax credit to fuel marketers and, more importantly, their consumers. NATSO is hopeful that by the end of January 2018 Congress will extend that important credit for 2017 and 2018. NATSO will continue to advocate for fuel marketers as energy taxes and policies are debated on Capitol Hill.
Policy Issues of the Future
Although autonomous vehicles that run solely on electricity are not expected to take over our highways anytime soon, 2018 is a critical year for policymakers to begin laying the foundation for the regulatory environment that will be in place as technology improves and society grows more accustomed to such innovations. Congress will continue debating legislation that will establish the initial "rules of the road" for autonomous vehicle testing, performance, and safety standards.
Although these developments won't take hold until long after 2018, it is critical that fuel marketers keep their eyes on the horizon and have a seat at the table as the developments unfold.
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