If there’s one silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's that it showed us our weak spots in the supply chain. As we continue to recover and assess the response to the pandemic, it's important that we seek out bipartisan solutions to the infrastructure and transportation concerns that came to light. Given the massive federal expenditures involved in that response, taxpayers have a big stake in any next steps the federal government may take.
One of those steps is the Safer Highways and Increased Performance for Interstate Trucking (SHIP IT) Act, introduced by Congressmen Dusty Johnson (R-SD) and Jim Costa (D-CA). While not ideal in every respect, this legislation would help to improve the trucking system in America and enact regulatory relief for one of our transportation modes that NTU has sought.
Currently, states are not able to increase weight limit restrictions on federal highways even in times of disaster, which restricts the flow of goods that can be deployed even with a shrinking availability of operators as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill would expand the emergency powers of states to waive federally set weight limits for the interstate highway system. It would also redefine emergencies to include declarations based on disease and supply chain disruptions as applicable. Such declarations would be allowed to be in effect for 120-180 days, depending on the nature of the declaration.
Recruit & Train
Although the trucking sector is not experiencing as dire a shortage of operators as it was during the pandemic’s peak, there is still an estimated 78,000 worker shortfall in the industry. This bill would provide clarification that drivers are eligible for Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Grants, which can be utilized for tuition to train entry level truck drivers. The costs associated with obtaining the proper certifications to begin a career can be a barrier of entry for many people looking to make the jump into a new field. Importantly, the bill would also provide for reciprocity among states for commercial drivers license examinations. NTU has long contended that cross-border recognition of licenses, whether for driving, telemedicine, or certain cases of tax representation, can help to eliminate red tape for governments and the taxpayers they serve.
As we look to expand the transportation industry, it's important that safety is at the front and center of the conversation. This bill would require the Secretary of Transportation to establish a pilot program allowing for the increase of weight limits on Federal Interstates up to 91,000-pounds on six-axles. The program would require participant states to report on the number of accidents involving six-axle trucks and their estimated gross vehicle weight at the time of the accident. As NTU has written before, taxpayers could benefit from prudent adjustments to the weight allotments for six-axle vehicles on Federal highways, many of which will weigh less than vehicles already allowed to operate on the Interstate System due to various exceptions in the law. Further, they are not as heavy as some vehicles that are allowed to operate in many states on non-Interstate System roads.This program will allow policymakers to get a better handle on whether and how taxpayers might benefit from updated weight limits.
Retention is key to any plan to improve the industry, and we need to support the workers who are already providing these essential services. However, providing targeted tax cuts is not an ideal method to retain the workforce. This bill seeks to keep existing drivers around through tax incentives. Eligible existing truck drivers would receive a tax credit of $7,500 per year for up to two years, while qualifying new and apprentice drivers up to $10,000 per year. Eligibility is based on drivers holding a valid Class A license, who drive at least 1,900 hours per year. While truckers could only take advantage of these incentives for two years, they are ultimately not a sustainable way to retain workers. This provision should be modified in favor of broad-based policies to promote worker retention, and Congress should stay in their lane while allowing the market to work to keep retention high. Among the priorities here should be providing administratively simpler, financially less burdensome federal tax policies for both employers and independent contractors throughout the economy, which in turn would benefit both workers at trucking firms as well as owner-operators.
In comparison to recent congressional spending, the $755 million price tag for infrastructure updates to the highway system, might seem like a drop in the bucket; however, Congress should not allow their frame of mind to be influenced by the massive emergency spending packages as of late. It is important that Congress seek to amend the package to include a way to pay for these necessary updates and reforms and examine longer-term alternatives to the retention provisions.
Congress has a responsibility to taxpayers to spend our hard earned money wisely in investments that improve infrastructure systems and experiences for all. Any new authorizations should be appropriately paid for through targeted reductions in spending elsewhere.
Fortunately, the amount of new spending called for in the bill ought to make the search for offsets a little less difficult. Examples include:
Utilizing unspent funds from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act, which according to the Government Accountability Office amounted to $90.5 billion as of January 31 of this year.
Enacting cost-saving legislation (introduced in previous Congresses but never passed) to expand life cycle cost analysis and open competition for materials on highway projects, such as the PAID Act or the SMART-I Act
Exploring any of the billions in transportation-related bipartisan budget savings in a joint report from NTU Foundation and US PIRG Education Fund (soon to be updated).
Pro-taxpayer transportation policy has common elements that apply to just about any mode of infrastructure – unleashing private-sector know-how and financing, keeping government taxes, spending and regulation at affordable levels, and respecting the “user pays” principle to the best degree possible. Yet, each mode also sometimes requires its own specific proposals to put that policy into action. Aviation needs a less costly, well-functioning NextGen air traffic control system, railroads need regulatory clarity to keep making investments into upgrades, and trucking needs a combination of tools to aid in retention, recruitment, and capacity. Especially with some additional modifications, the SHIP IT Act could provide several of those helpful tools.