Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Make those who cause the damage pay for highways

This bit of commentary arrived here in response to a previous post, but Tom Elmore’s essay on properly allocating the cost of highway maintenence is just too good to be relegated to the “comments” section behind my post on the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

Elmore is the Executive Director of the North American Transportation Institute in Oklahoma City.

Late Supreme Court Justice and Nuremburg War Crimes Trials Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson said this about the job of the American citizen: “It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”

The dilemma faced by transportation department leaders in Oklahoma and other states has now been highlighted by the unfortunate failure of the I-35 W Bridge in Minneapolis. Expect local TV stations to sensationalize the whole business for a while — as they did at the Webbers Falls incident a while back.

Here’s the simple truth: Current ODOT leadership has consistently refused to level with the people of Oklahoma, just as its counterparts in other states and at the federal level have done, as to the real problem and its entirely obvious solution.

As an engineer recently reminded me — Interstate-class highway bridges don’t “feel” even the heaviest passenger vehicles at all. It’s the heavy trucks that damage such bridges. Physics are physics — and you can’t fool “Mother Nature.”

Last time I looked, trucking was paying a little less than one-third of annual “contributions” comprising the vaunted Federal Highway Trust Fund. Who paid the rest? The driving public. In short, the Highway Trust Fund is just one more black, hocus-pocus, Washington curtain behind which “the people’s representatives” in congress force the public to massively subsidize their buddies in the commercial trucking industry.

Sixty-plus years of this game have completely destroyed any pretense of real competition in the surface transport marketplace. Which of us would care to compete against congress, federal and other public highways and the bottomless well of public money that’s supposed to be keeping them up?

Trouble is, mixed with self-serving politics, spiraling hubris and sheer incompetence, those highways have not been kept up — even as the numbers of trucks relentlessly hammering them increases daily. Unless the people take charge, yanking government up short and demanding obvious reforms the problem may soon become too big to fix.

Oklahoma is a fine example — and the problem is not hard to understand. One standard semi-trailer truck operating at its maximum legal weight (80,000 lbs, gvw) inflicts pavement damage said conservatively to equal “9,600 automobiles.” However, our state requires the truck to pay three cents less state fuel tax than the auto pays — and the penny diesel tax its operators pay creates significantly less revenue than the penny gasoline tax.

Rather than step up to the plate and simply FIX this problem, state legislators — forever schmoozing both the trucking and highway contracting lobbies, both of which have long benefited from this betrayal of the public trust — have methodically made it worse.

When state fuel taxes were raised in 1987, it was the driving public that got tagged with most of the new expense. Same thing happened with the infamous “Billion Dollar Highway package” in 1997. The very same people who were behind those two debacles tried again with SQ 723 — meant to raise fuel taxes yet again — and then succeeded in cornering more new money in the 2005 legislative session, from tag and registration fee revenues, an even higher percentage of which are paid by the driving public.

What happens when people whose vehicles don’t significantly damage roads are forced pay for damage and new capacity demand overwhelmingly inflicted by commercial trucking? The people are rewarding trucking for its irresponsible practices.

What do truck lines do with the money they should have had to repay for road use — but didn’t have to pay because the taxpayers got stuck with the cost? They go buy more trucks.

Between 1996 and 1999, truck volume on Oklahoma roads grew an average 45% a year — while other modes suffered. It’s not been long since BNSF packed up its Flynn Yard intermodal terminal and moved it to Ft. Worth. Not enough business in Oklahoma — and now, no place to put a truck on a train here, even though “piggyback” is the preferred method of the nation’s most profitable trucking operations.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma government has never produced the most basic management tool needed to recover costs accurately. It’s called a Highway Cost Allocation Study — and, given a righteous study model — it will scientifically, definitively show what each class of vehicle using public roads now pays versus what it should be paying.

Apparently, state leaders “don’t want to know” that information — and they sure-as-sunrise don’t want the taxpayers to know.

Unfortunately, the tactic has been — “schmooze your special interest friends, bamboozle the taxpayers (which translates to blaming the general public for not funding roads better!) — and hope the day of reckoning doesn’t appear until after you’ve comfortably retired.”

Unfortunately, but probably inevitably, Judgement day is “here” in Minnesota — and may well now be hastening nearer throughout the rest of the country.

Why don’t our leaders simply see to it that each user of our roads repays accurately? Why don’t they simply do right?

Because trucking as we know it would likely cease to exist as a “long distance thing” — and truck-inflicted road damage has ensured endless roadway contractor work for many, many years.

In fact, the “great Interstate Highway experiment” of the last 60 years has conclusively proven that concrete roads are no way to move heavy freight long distances. Railroads were meant for that job — and trucks for “drayage,” or moving those loads the relatively short distances to and from shippers and receivers to regional rail terminals.

A revolution is required — and Oklahoma has the tools to drive it. Our state owns more railway than any other, in addition to our commercially owned and operated rail lines.

There is not doubt — none — that every transportation leader in the state knows this and has known it for years. So why are these people determined to rip the heart out of our fabulous state rail network by destroying the rail yard at OKC Union Station?

Incompetence. Corruption. Arrogant hubris — on a scale that could only have developed with no real oversight over many, many years. Power corrupts. Unaccountable power corrupts profoundly, exponentially, rapidly picking up speed until it looks like a rocket sled to perdition.

Why — at a time like this — does Oklahoma’s department of transportation have a director claiming to be a “professional engineer,” but not in possession of a college degree? Could this man qualify to teach a college level class in the discipline the taxpayers pay him to practice each day? Could he qualify to head the “Oklahoma Transportation Center,” said to be a developing “world class” university transport research apparatus?

Under this leadership, ODOT has completely, miserably failed to accurately predict the cost of its premier project, the “New I-40 Crosstown.” It has failed to accurately represent how that project will be built. It has absolutely, chronically failed to explain why the rail yard lying at the center of the state’s great rail network should be sacrificed for this absurd plan. But, still, our governor listens only to ODOT on such matters — sort of like Buffalo Bob “waiting for advice from Howdy Doody,” or a dog on the street waiting to be “wagged” by its own tail.

Something needs to be done — and soon — to rescue the state from this trouble. Inasmuch as the job will plainly be left to the people themselves, we need to ask ourselves — are we up to it?

We need to be certain that proposed “answers” we get from folks like this follow reasonable questions. “Solutions” that create bigger problems are not solutions at all.

TOM ELMORE, Executive Director
North American Transportation Institute
Oklahoma City


Filed under: Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

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