The New Year will usher in a new chapter of the Trump Administration that will have wide-ranging consequences for NATSO’s policy priorities.
Democrats officially take over the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010; this political realignment makes it all the more critical that NATSO harness relationships with elected officials on both sides of the aisle to advance the core issues faced by the truckstop and travel plaza industry.
Although the current legislative makeup could be a recipe for gridlock in Congress, it also presents some key opportunities as it relates to NATSO’s core advocacy issues.
Here is an overview of NATSO’s top legislative issues and their outlook for 2019.
Infrastructure is largely viewed as one area where bipartisan agreement will be possible this year.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said that a major infrastructure package funded by real dollars will be his first order of business in the 116th Congress, and that Congress will kick off a new round of transportation hearings in early January.
Following the midterm elections, Rep. DeFazio met with White House Legislative Affairs Director Shahira Knight, who he said assured him of the President’s “sincere” desire to work with Democrats on an infrastructure package.
The reality, however, is that even infrastructure will be a political football in 2019.
Just a few days before the Christmas break, President Trump declared that he would not sign any infrastructure legislation in 2019 unless Congress funds his border wall, which Democrats in Congress pretty much universally oppose. This underscores just how volatile the political landscape is these days and how difficult it will be to move meaningful legislation on Capitol Hill.
Congressman DeFazio and T&I Ranking Member Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) have repeatedly expressed their mutual desire to work together to advance infrastructure legislation.
What exactly that looks like — including whether it will be one bill or two in light of the 2020 expiration of current surface transportation law — and how it will be paid for are of course the top of mind questions everyone is asking.
Increasing the fuel tax and a pilot program to study vehicle miles traveled appear to be two primary targets. During a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing in November that largely focused on funding the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), witnesses repeatedly told lawmakers that increasing the federal fuel tax would be the most efficient way to shore up the HTF in the short-term.
Rep. DeFazio has long supported increasing the motor fuels taxes and said recently that he plans to propose a national vehicle miles traveled (VMT) pilot program.
NATSO continues to think that the federal motor fuels taxes remain the most efficient method for funding infrastructure at the present time.
Rest Area Commercialization
At the Federal level, there have been strong signals of opposition to commercial rest areas from key lawmakers, including from Rep. DeFazio. Congressman DeFazio spoke about the shortcomings of the $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan put forth by the Trump Administration in early 2018, stating that it was full of “pretend stuff” such as privatization and asset recycling. (Implemented by the Australian Government, asset recycling funds new infrastructure and revitalizes existing infrastructure through the sale or lease of public assets, which could lead to commercial rest areas.)
Sen. Barrasso (R-WY), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, also has said that existing highway and transit formula programs are the best way to get infrastructure dollars out. Sen. Barrasso in 2018 sent a letter to the Department of Transportation opposing commercial rest areas. In the letter, Sen. Barrasso reminded DOT about the Senate’s overwhelming rejection of commercial rest areas in 2012, when it voted 86-12 against an amendment of the highway bill and upheld the longstanding federal law prohibiting the sale of food, fuel and other convenience items from interstate rest areas.
Despite these strong signals of opposition, however, the fact that the issue of commercial rest areas was raised by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials during a late 2018 Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing signals that some state organizations could renew their push for commercial rest areas in 2019.
It has only been since February 2018 that the President issued his infrastructure proposal that expressly called for an over-reliance on private funding to finance infrastructure, including commercial rest areas.
NATSO and its coalition of like-minded businesses, including fuel retailers, convenience stores, hotels and restaurants, will continue to educate lawmakers in 2019 about the devastating effects that commercial rest areas would have on off-highway businesses, local communities and truck parking.
Tolling federal interstates remains prohibited under federal law, subject to certain limited exceptions.
In light of House T&I Committee Chairman Peter DeFazo’s longstanding opposition to tolling, it is unlikely that lifting the federal prohibition on tolling the Interstate Highway System would be considered as part of any federal infrastructure bill.
Nonetheless, a number of states continue to seek the ability to toll — either though federal pilot programs or by exploiting loopholes in federal law — including in Congressman DeFazio’s home state of Oregon.
NATSO has been opposing efforts in Virginia (seeking to toll I-81), Oregon (seeking to toll I-5 and I-205) and Rhode Island, which is in the midst of a legal challenge over its exploitation of a bridge exemption that it is utilizing to toll commercial trucks within the state.
Marking a recent victory for NATSO and the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb in late November abandoned plans to add tolls to Indiana’s existing interstates after strong opposition from the public and the business community.
In the coming year, NATSO and ATFI will continue to push back against these and other such tolling initiatives, which would significantly increase the costs of shipped goods, divert trucks off of the interstate onto local roads and have serious negative effects for local businesses, which will have to pay more for the goods that they sell.
NATSO is actively pursuing an extension to the expired Biodiesel Tax Credit. Although this effort will largely hinge on Congress's ability to overcome the current stalemate surrounding the government shutdown and the border wall, there is widespread optimism that the credit will be extended at least for 2018 and hopefully 2019 at some point early in the year.
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