Michael W. Johnson, president and CEO of the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, interrupted his advocacy efforts recently to talk about the DRIVE Act and the need for a long-term, stably funded surface transportation bill. The DRIVE Act is the reauthorization bill approved July 21 at the committee level for full Senate consideration.
CEG: A release by your association says that the NSSGA knows “exactly what it will take to get America’s economy and infrastructure back to what it needs to be.” Is the association’s answer, by any chance, “money”? Or is there more to it than that?
Johnson: It certainly starts with money. For every dollar in infrastructure spending, you generate additional spending — I believe the multiplier is three or four. When you are constructing roads and other transportation arteries, you are growing the GDP and creating jobs.
CEG: The NSSGA supports the DRIVE Act. Why is it preferable to other proffered transportation funding proposals?
Johnson: The DRIVE Act was reported out of committee unanimously, which to my mind makes it politically viable.
CEG: In the DRIVE Act, per-annum highway funding would change little. It moves from approximately $41 billion in the current two-year MAP-21 authorization to about $44 billion in fiscal year 2015, systematically rising during the six years of the DRIVE Act to $49 billion in 2021. You believe that funding level is sufficient?
Johnson: No, I frankly don’t believe the bill’s level of funding is sufficient to meet the needs of our country. We have neglected infrastructure for way too long and we have an aging system that is well past its life cycle. Our roads no longer are the envy of the world. Some 60,000 of our bridges are structurally deficient. So is it enough? No, it isn’t. We need to do much more as we build the economy and continue to create jobs. What we are looking at in this bill is meeting the most critical needs over the next six years.
CEG: Sharply higher funding levels have been proposed. The American Society of Civil Engineers says $70 billion a year is about right. The administration has called for expenditure of $80 billion per year. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist candidate for president, believes $200 billion a year is not too much. Does the association have a desired level of funding in mind?
Johnson: It is difficult to put a hard number on it. Every proposal you hear about has a number, a number that people believe is needed to not just keep ahead of projected models of increasing traffic but to invest in the future of the system. I don’t know exactly what the optimum number is. I believe what we are practicing here is the art of the politically possible. Senators came together around a proposal, the DRIVE Act, that starts the process of investment in our transportation in a multi-year bill. It is a great step forward.
CEG: It could be argued, in fact, is argued, that just about any level of funding that is authorized for multiple years is better than any one-year bill. Is that your view?
Johnson: No doubt about it. Any type of transportation construction project is a multi-year endeavor. From when you are doing the planning right on through construction, you are talking about several years for completion. One- or two-year bills don’t give a state the ability to plan effectively. Most states have to be able to budget a complete project before they can start it. One and two-year federal funding takes the ability of a state to plan right out of the equation. They cannot invest money in the most efficient and advantageous way. So long-term bills are crucial.
CEG: The Act seems to offer more flexible utilization of federal funds at state and local levels. It emphasizes freight traffic corridors. It tends to support rural funding for roads and bridges. Are these features of special interest to NSSGA?
Johnson: Our special interest is getting a long-term bill that is stably funded so we can get back to building infrastructure that meets the needs of the country. A majority of members of Congress believe in state rights and local flexibility. I think that is OK, but let me be absolutely clear: What the association is most interested in is a long-term bill that is stably funded. How that happens is up to Congress.
CEG: There is a great political reluctance to prioritize funding, the preference being to fund across the board to win support for passage of a bill. The DRIVE Act rather pointedly prioritizes bridge repair and Interstate System repair. Is this prioritization a significant departure from previous bills?
Johnson: Any time you have limited resources, you have to consider priorities. We are at a point in time when priorities may be necessary. We as an industry are ready to provide all the rock that the country needs for whatever priority projects it has, but none of that will happen without a long-term bill. We are focusing on that — a long-term, stably funded bill.
CEG: The bill talks about Highway Transportation Fund transparency to ensure that funding goes where it is authorized to go, and about extending a user fee to electric vehicles to match the gasoline tax on gas-fueled vehicles. What is the NSSGA position on gas tax funding and Highway Trust Fund solvency?
Johnson: The association’s position is very clear. The Highway Trust Fund is the most efficient means of setting aside transportation funding — and having dedicated funds is the best way to go. The best means of collecting revenue for the fund is a user fee on fuel. It is a fair way to fund transportation. There is a belief that in this political climate the gas tax is not liable to be increased, so we have to look at this in longer terms. The role of the federal government is to support growth of commerce between the states as well as internationally. We have got to get to a more reliable way of doing that with our infrastructure.
CEG: How broadly is the construction industry supporting the DRIVE Act?
Johnson: The support is strong. Certainly the association is working hard to make sure any bill will pass the House and Senate. We have generated more than 4,000 grassroots contacts with our members across the country.
CEG: Are they all supportive?
Johnson: There have been a number of very positive responses. Some are still evaluating the bills. I can tell you that my members for years have been consistently supportive of a long-term, well-funded bill.
CEG: Does your aggregates association deem a long-term highway funding bill to be as critical an issue as the EPA Waters of the U.S. rule?
Johnson: The Waters of the U.S. rule is one of the most egregious statutes I have seen in my 25 years in Washington. I’m not alone; others say the same thing about how the EPA exceeded its statutory authority. We are going to continue to fight this rule as hard as we are fighting for a long-term, stably funded transportation bill. It’s not either-or. It’s both. The water rule doesn’t only make it harder for members of the aggregates industry do their work well, it makes it harder for state governments to work and for the construction industry to work. This rule has impact across the board, which is why there is such remarkable opposition to it.
CEG: So are you feeling good about getting a transportation bill you like?
Johnson: I am very optimistic about multi-year funding. Congress is listening. Constituents from all walks of life are saying we have got to do better. We have to build safer, better roads to enjoy our lifestyle and build our economy throughout the union. In some rankings, we have fallen to 28th in the world in quality of infrastructure. That’s untenable.