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As the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) is among the influential lawmakers overseeing the development of national surface transportation policy. Rahall has been a member of Congress since 1976 and has served on the House T&I Committee for his entire tenure in Congress. He took over as the ranking member on the Committee in January. Rahall sat down with Road King to discuss the year ahead.
Q What are your top priorities as you move forward on the next highway reauthorization bill?
A Earlier this year, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee conducted a nationwide series of field hearings and listening sessions in an effort to gather input from local communities as we craft a multi-year surface transportation bill. We visited communities large and small, but one theme we heard over and over again concerns the tremendous uncertainty that is created for states and local communities when Congress fails to enact a multi-year bill that is large enough to adequately tackle the well-documented backlog of transportation and infrastructure needs.
The next bill must renew the nation’s commitment to building and operating the intermodal surface transportation network that meets the demands of the 21st century. It must make our roadways safer while reducing the cost in time and wasted fuel caused by congestion and strengthening global economic competitiveness by expanding access to jobs, commerce and vital services.
I hope Congress can come together once again to craft a multi-year surface transportation bill that will give states, tribes, local communities and contractors the level of investment and the predictability they need to bid, break ground and build.
Q Republicans took control of the House of Representatives this year. How has the change in leadership affected the next highway bill?
A The new leadership in the House changed the rules regarding the Highway Trust Fund. The change undid protections that had been crafted through the leadership of former Republican Congressman Bud Shuster to ensure that gas tax monies that flowed into the Highway Trust Fund would be used to finance transportation investments. The idea was simple: Gas taxes paid at the pump to improve highway and transit systems must be used for that purpose.
I fought side by side with Bud in 1998 to protect the Highway Trust Fund from being ransacked, raided and held hostage to hide the true size of the federal deficit. So I was deeply disappointed when the Republicans broke the “trust” of the Highway Trust Fund as their very first act of the 112th Congress.
Addressing our transportation investment needs will require political will and courage to address the challenges and realities that have been avoided for too long. Unfortunately, the budget that passed the House earlier this year cuts more than $100 billion from the current inadequate surface transportation investment levels. I recognize that we need to take steps to reduce the nation’s deficit; however, I do not believe this should be done through deep cuts to surface transportation programs. Such cuts would shortchange many of the transportation investments that are needed to grow our economy and keep us economically competitive.
Q What role will public-private partnerships, whereby states sell roads or portions of roads to private firms that charge tolls to make a profit, play in the funding process?
A Some have suggested we fill the gap through innovative financing techniques and private sector investment. These financing tools should be explored and utilized when appropriate and in the public interest. We cannot, however, depend on bonding, borrowing and tolling alone. These financing tools may make sense for certain projects, but they are not a substitute for adequate public funding. As well, any financing mechanism should include a formula of fairness to commerce and commuters alike — from our most rural corners to our most urban centers.
These tools should not be seen as a silver-bullet solution to the investment gap currently facing our surface transportation network as some have suggested. These financing mechanisms could be used where appropriate, but only in the best interest of public, not private, investors. The bill must include provisions to ensure that these deals, when utilized, are done so in a manner that benefits the public and does not hamper future decisions with poorly designed, long-term arrangements.