Down, Under, and Through

Have you ever heard the saying that “there’s nowhere to go but up?”  Well, with highway construction that is not always the case.  In fact, sometimes down is the best direction – down and under, that is. 

North End of Massey Tunnel
Midday Traffic, Massey Tunnel

In the September 2013 edition of Woodward Publishing‘s Western Trucking News, I wrote about the George Massey Tunnel project in British Columbia and the Washington State Route 99 through (err, under) Seattle.  Both quite interesting.

Read the story by Clicking Here (pdf).

Random Tolling

How do you pay for a bridge that was constructed before funding was secured?  You toll an entirely different road of course!

The 520 bridge in the Seattle area is just this project.  One plan to pay for the bridge, which also has experienced $100 million in engineering snafu’s, is to toll Interstate 90 to help pay for the $1.4 billion shortfall.

This proposal, and how we arrived at this point, is just too outlandish to write about…..so why not listen….

Learn more about this “fundamentally flawed” proposal, as well as other disturbing and related issues with this project by listening to my interview with Paul Guppy, VP of Research for the Washington Policy Center (originally aired on my local radio program, In The Booth).

Click Here to Listen: Bad Tolling Plan

I’ve long been an opponent of toll roads in most cases.  Proponents of toll roads generally argue tolls are nothing more than a “user fee,” while I argue the gas tax is that “user fee” – unfortunately states and the federal government generally don’t use the gas tax entirely for what I believe it’s intended purpose is, to fund highways.  This proposal, however, takes the idea of tolling to an entirely new disturbing level.

Long Term Highway Funding, Step 1

Congressman Tom Petri

The first step toward authorizing a long term highway funding bill takes place Thursday, March 14.  The Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, under Chairman Tom Petri (R-WI) will hold a hearing on the implementation of reforms and requirements including in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21).

Petri told me this hearing will lay the foundation for a series of hearings over the next year or so that he hopes will lead to a “real highway program reauthorization before the Congress is over.”

When asked what he meant by “real highway authorization” Petri told me, “A 6 year one that is adequately funded.”  He suggested adequate long term funding is needed to ensure the country has a first rate infrastructure.

Click Here To Listen to my brief conversation with Congressman Petri.

MAP-21 is the current surface transportation law, which was enacted last July and expires at the end of Fiscal Year 2014 (September 30, 2014).

“Ensuring that the Department of Transportation is making progress in implementing MAP-21 provisions, and preparing for the next surface transportation reauthorization are both priorities for the Committee and Subcommittee this Congress,” Petri said in a prepared statement.  “I look forward to hearing from the Department on its efforts to implement major reforms, such as project delivery and program consolidation required by MAP-21.”

Scheduled to appear are:

  • Victor M. Mendez, Administrator, Federal Highway Administration
  • Peter M. Rogoff, Administrator, Federal Transit Administration
  • Anne S. Ferro, Administrator, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration
  • David L. Strickland, Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Additional information, testimony, and live webcast link will be posted here as it becomes available.

Transportation Infrastructure / Amtrak #Fail

  As the country approaches yet another fiscal cliff (though this time it is called a sequester), the President’s 2013 State of the Union Address outlined an aggressive program to address America’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure.

  The President said, “America’s energy sector is just one part of an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair. Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs.”

  Specifically, the President proposed “a “Fix-It-First” program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.”

  Although it is difficult to disagree with the call to improve America’s infrastructure, it’s also unfortunate that no specific plan was proposed to pay for these improvements. The fact that the country is likely to experience a sequestor whereby $85 billion from the budget will be slashed, resulting in a loss of 750,000 jobs (according to the Congressional Budget Office) and a lower economic growth rate, it’s unlikely any meaningful infrastructure improvement funding will occur.

Amtrak  Fortunately, there is still hope for the President’s call for high speed rail, right? At least that segment of the transportation industry will see a benefit, right? Well, perhaps not. A recent column by Daniel Hanson, and economist with the American Enterprise Institute, calls for an end to Amtrak. One might wonder why when Amtrak posted its best year in 2012 since 1975- it only lost $361 million.

  Yes, it ONLY LOST $361 Million in 2012 – it’s best year since 1975. Given the relative success, or lack thereof, of the Amtrak system, why would high speed rail be a priority? Will it suddenly become profitable (or at least break even)?

  At minimum, I agree with Hanson in that Amtrak should be required to submit a legitimate business plan to Congress showing how it will be in the black – even with federal funding.

Listen to my interview with Daniel Hanson discussing Amtrak and its financial comparison to the Interstate system. (From my local radio program)

  The President’s call to action on infrastructure improvements with no specific funding mechanism, the upcoming sequestor with no solution in sight, and the failed Amtrak program, highlights the need for the American citizenry to demand real leadership both in Congress and in the White House.

Increasing Fuel Taxes

My latest column for Challenge Magazine discusses state and federal fuel taxes.  While it is apparent there will be an increase in some form of fuel tax, especially at the state level, it’s currently unclear as to what that impact will be on the trucking industry.

In my column, I write, “From my perspective, it’s far easier to accept tax increases from state governments than the federal government.”  And, “Hopefully this will result in improved highway infrastructure, but unfortunately it will also likely result in increased costs to consumers – even those consumers the president has promised not to raise taxes on.”  I also reflect upon Congressman Tom Graves fuel tax devolution proposal from the last Congress – perhaps its time to take a closer look at that.

Click Here to Read the full article here at Challenge Magazine.


Canada’s Pipeline Controversy

The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Project appears to offer an impressive upside for the Canadian trucking industry and North America’s energy and economic future.  However, not unlike the Keystone XL Pipeline Project controversy I addressed last week (calling on President Obama and his Administration to approve it), Canada is also experiencing it’s own share of pipeline controversy.

Click here to read my feature about the project in the February 2013 Western Trucking News, a Canadian trucking industry publication from Woodward Publishing.

Kitimat Terminal



On a personal note, I’m honored to have this new opportunity to contribute to Western Trucking News.

2012 Election – Now What

By Michael Howe

The 2012 election is over, the results – for the most part – are in, so now the question becomes “what does this all mean for the trucking industry?”

The one thing we knew for certain prior to the results being announced was that we would have a new Secretary of Transportation.  Current Secretary Ray LaHood had already made his intentions clear that he plans to step down at the end of President Obama’s first term.  When that will happen exactly is somewhat unclear, but certainly within the first few months 2013.  Will policies change much at the DOT?  Probably not.  There will continue to be an emphasis on stronger safety regulations for the trucking industry, concerns about infrastructure and more.  What will matter with the new Secretary is the level of emphasis placed on each area.

With the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) I would be surprised if current Administrator Ferro did not continue in that role for at least another year or two, unless the President decides to elevate her to Secretary (which I also doubt).  Under Ferro’s Administration the FMCSA has not been shy about shutting down high risk truck and bus companies.  In addition, FMCSA continues to work on EOBR mandates, Distracted Driving regulations, and of course the cross border program.  They also continue to research the Hours of Service regulations.

Outside of the bureaucracy, President Obama’s economic and tax policies create some concern for trucking companies.  This goes back to the old adage of the only thing you can count on are death and taxes.  Well, it’s the taxes part – specifically increasing taxes – that are most worrisome to the trucking industry.


In a second term Presidents don’t have to worry about re-election, so there is a tendency early in the term to be a little more aggressive.  The first 2-3 years might be the time when President Obama makes a big move on climate change issues.  Any such legislation from Congress or regulation from the EPA such as a carbon tax, stricter emissions regulations, or other climate related regulations would undoubtedly result in increased cost pressures on the trucking industry.

Fuel prices will continue to be a concern, though they would be a concern with whoever was in office.  The real issue here is what is our nation’s energy policy?  The Keystone Pipeline likely won’t easily become a reality – ok, it likely won’t become a reality at all.  You can also expect the administration to look more at fracking and perhaps work to impose regulations on that.  We’re not going to see a significant increase in domestic drilling and offshore drilling permits, so the largely unnecessary dependence on foreign oil will continue.  Expect prices to continue rising, fluctuating for seasonal demands, but rising overall.

Congress really didn’t change much either.

In the US Senate the Democrats were able to pick up 2 seats, though they are still far shy of the 60 seats needed to stop a filibuster.  This is interesting because with a filibuster the Republicans will still be able to prevent legislation of force a compromise.   Something to watch, however, will be an early attempt by Democrats to force a vote on limiting filibusters.

In the US House, Republicans retained control.  Rep. John Mica, Chair of the Transportation Infrastructure Committee (and friend of trucking) was re-elected, as was another friend of trucking Rep. Tom Graves.  Obviously there are other “friends of trucking,” but these are just two who I found to be of interest based on my interviews with them.

So, the end result – not much has changedWe have the same people in charge that were in charge before the election.  This is the same group of leaders that negotiated themselves into the corner that is the looming “fiscal cliff.”  This is the same group of leaders that has been largely unable to pass any meaningful long term highway bill (and no, the recent one was not long term in my opinion). 


Major issues facing the trucking industry in the next 6-12 months:

  • Fiscal Cliff
  • Electronic On Board Recorders (EOBRs)
  • Hours of Service (possibly)
  • Cross Border Trucking with Mexico
  • Who is the new Secretary of Transportation?
  • New Environmental Regulations
  • Additional Distracted Driving Regulations
  • Tax increases?
  • Infrastructure Funding
  • Fuel Prices / Energy Policy

And how will the trucking industry fare with any or all of those issues?

With Congress we have and will continue to have gridlock.

With the President, we have an administration not afraid to impose costly regulations on the trucking industry, and because Congress is in a perpetual state of gridlock there is little hope they can effectively legislate a way out of the costly regulations.  With the President, we have an administration not afraid to propose tax increases, and because Congress is in a perpetual state of gridlock they are almost always in a situation where a forced “compromise” is necessary to get anything done, thus opening the door for less than industry friendly proposals.

In essence, buckle up…….we may need to steer around a pot hole or two.


Related articles of interest:
Rough Road Ahead (Fiscal Cliff), Challenge Magazine October 2012
FMCSA’s Safety Resolve, Challenge Magazine November 2012
Talking Safety with Anne Ferro, Challenge Magazine June 2012
A Conversation with Ray LaHood, Challenge Magazine March 2012


LaHood: Kudos To China

A few days prior to America’s Independence Day (July 4), DOT Secretary Ray LaHood offered a brief interview with “The Cable,” as reported by Josh Rogin.  In that interview, LaHood said, “The Chinese are more successful (in building infrastructure) because in their country, only three people make the decision….. ….In a country where only three people make the decision, they can decide where to put their rail line, get the money, and do it. We don’t do it that way in America.”

To be fair, LaHood did also say that the US has the best system of government because people have a say in decisions.  Yet, his frustration with the US system apparently had him thinking of how things could be….

LaHood’s frustration level is a direct result of his and President Obama’s inability to work with Republicans.  In the same interview, LaHood said, “Two years ago, between 50 to 60 Republicans were elected to the House of Representatives to come to Washington to do nothing, and that’s what they’ve done and they’ve stopped any progress. Those people don’t have any vision about what the government can do. That’s been a real inhibitor in our ability to think outside the box and think big.”

Do these statements bother anyone else?  They sure do bother me.


Remember, for the first two years of the Obama Administration the President’s party controlled both the White House and the Congress.  As US Rep. John Mica, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, reminded everyone on July 6, “…..with significant majorities in both the House and Senate, and (Obama) failed to enact transportation legislation. On June 17, 2009, the Obama Administration intervened and stopped in its tracks a six-year transportation proposal and opted for an 18-month extension of the expiring law.”

And, is China really the country we want to hold up as the shining example of success?  Consider these facts:

Reuters reported on July 18, 2012, that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is concerned about its economy. He said, “”Currently and in the future, China’s employment situation will become more complex and more severe. The task of promoting full employment will be very heavy and we must make greater efforts to achieve it.”

According to Amnesty International, about 500,000 people are being detained in China without being charged with a crime and no trial set.  “Harassment, surveillance, house arrest, and imprisonment of human rights defenders are on the rise, and censorship of the Internet and other media has grown. Repression of minority groups, including Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians, and of Falun Gong practitioners and Christians who practice their religion outside state-sanctioned churches continues.”

Learn more about China’s abuses from Amnesty International.


Information on Labor in China from China Labor Watch suggests that wages are low, hours are long, working conditions are poor, and discrimination and abuse are prevalent.

So, yes Mr. LaHood, one way to address your inability to get the job done is to emulate the Chinese system.  Yes, Mr. LaHood, President Obama’s leadership has been ineffective, even when his party controlled the Congress, but if he was the leader of China he might have more success. 

Personally, I found your statements, just a few days prior to Independence Day, to be appalling, misguided, off base, and very telling.  I prefer to continue flying the American Flag!