Discussing the Highway Bill: An Interview with NAM Director Robyn Boerstling

We are fortunate to have Robyn Boerstling as our guest on Transportfolio® this week. Robyn is the director of transportation and infrastructure policy at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).


This is her busiest season because Congress is currently tackling how to fund the next highway bill, more formally known as the surface transportation authorization.


Robyn, the last highway investment bill (MAP-21) was only a two year bill. Can you give us an update on when that bill runs out and an overview of what’s coming up?

As the May 31 deadline for the MAP-21 authorization approaches, Congress is likely to come up with a temporary patch while having a serious debate about long-term transportation funding. However, we have a sense that a roadmap for the timing of the next authorization might be soon revealed by House and Senate leaders. We believe a strong case can be made that this is the year for Congress—Republicans and Democrats to come together, along with the President, to begin addressing some of our nation’s biggest transportation challenges.


What are the primary ways being debated about how Congress can fund a long-term infrastructure bill?

There is a lot of talk about different ideas and ways to fund the highway bill—ranging from the sensible to the impossible—but most of the discussion is at the individual level, i.e., a member of Congress is working on a proposal or an outside group has a specific solution that they are proposing.

However, we have not yet seen Congress coalesce around one idea and that is going to be one of the biggest challenges moving forward. Transportation funding decisions are the responsibility of the Senate Finance and House Ways & Means Committees, not the authorizing Committees with jurisdiction over transportation policies and programs. In time, we will see more ideas and conversations generating from the Senate Finance and House Ways & Means Committees, likely in the weeks ahead. With a May 31 deadline looming, it will be difficult to ignore what federal highway and transit programs are up against, especially as the spring construction season is just beginning.


How are different advocacy groups and trade associations working together?

While different funding concepts are being discussed and presented, the transportation community is very united and working hard to beat back the idea that eliminating the federal gas tax over time and turning federal transportation programs over to the states are ways to solve the larger problems. Reducing federal bureaucracy and providing flexibility to the states in transportation decision-making are policies worth considering, but leaving transportation investments 100% to the states would be disastrous for interstate commerce. Even the belief that key reforms alone will cover the large funding gap is very misguided. NAM recently signed a letter to lawmakers articulating these concerns.


Why should transportation professionals at manufacturing companies reading this blog be invested in this debate?

There are two answers to this question. First, the NAM released an in-depth study last fall, called Catching Up. It showed that we will never reverse current declines in infrastructure funding or achieve gains in GDP, productivity, and jobs if we do not adopt a more dedicated effort to build and modernize infrastructure. The declines in infrastructure investments, specifically in highways, have been in a downward direction for ten years so we are going backward, not forward. I think every manufacturing executive and employee has a stake in this issue because it is really about maintaining and growing our nation’s global competitiveness.

Tom Riordan, president and CEO of Neenah Enterprises and chair of the NAM Small and Medium Manufacturers group, recently testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the need for Congress to reauthorize the surface transportation bill. Tom did a great job tying the issues together and explaining why manufacturers are invested in this debate. A copy of his testimony can be viewed here.

Second, readers should think about the West Coast ports and the recent impacts of the slowdowns manufacturers experienced in the later part of 2014 and into 2015 due to labor uncertainty at ocean marine terminals on the West Coast. The levels of congestion were significant and the impact of uncertainty at the ports had wide-ranging effects, including but not limited to added inventory costs, lost customers, and even slowed or stopped production in some instances. If we have a breakdown in our transportation system of this magnitude on our highways, on our rails, at our airports or even at our ports again, it harms our ability to compete with global customers. We cannot be building, operating, or maintaining twenty-first century infrastructure with funding or policies conceived in the past.


What are some tangible things transportation professionals can do to advocate for increased infrastructure investment?

Aging and deteriorating infrastructure does not sustain future trade, economic growth, or global competitiveness. Make your voice heard and start with a call to your representatives in Congress and get engaged with groups like the NAM. If everyone who relies on a road to make things happen in America is eager for a long-term solution that delivers us more modern infrastructure, then every member of Congress needs to be ready, too.


Source: Transportfolio C.H. Robinson


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