John Smith (right) joined a group from the American Trucking Associations (ATA) for a March 23 visit to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. PHOTO JOYCE N. BOGHOSIAN
By Dave DeWitte
A well-publicized trip to the White House left CRST Chairman John Smith encouraged for the prospects of much-needed highway infrastructure improvements.
Mr. Smith serves on the board of directors of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), which was invited to meet with President Donald Trump on March 23. Although the White House steered the purpose of the meeting toward a bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Smith said the delegation’s representatives found an opening to talk about constrained and deteriorating highway infrastructure, their primary concern, after the president shared an anecdote from a friend’s cross-country travels.
“He said, ‘We’re gonna do it,’ and that, of course, is what we wanted to hear,” Mr. Smith told the CBJ.
When pressed by the ATA on the need to expand constrained transportation infrastructure, rather than just repair what exists, Mr. Smith said the president indicated that repairs would come first, but that he will support expanding infrastructure if enough funding is available. Mr. Smith said he also received reassurances from Vice President Mike Pence during a conversation after the formal meeting.
The timing of the visit – on the day originally expected to bring a vote on the bill to replace the ACA – overshadowed its original purpose, and Mr. Smith said ATA leaders were fearful that the meeting would be canceled. Instead, the White House said that the meeting would be restricted to discussion of the ACA and its impact on the industry.
The president broached the topic of infrastructure when he mentioned a friend who drives annually from New York to Los Angeles, and had told Mr. Trump that the nation’s interstates are in terrible condition.
“He looked at a driver in our group and said, ‘Is that your experience?’” Mr. Smith recalled. He said the driver, who was trained as one of a team of industry spokesmen for the ATA, responded well with a description of the kinds of highway conditions he encounters.
Mr. Smith doesn’t expect the highway infrastructure legislation to come up in Congress until after tax reform, meaning late summer or early fall. He said it could encounter resistance from some conservatives within the GOP that will require advocates to enlist support on both sides of the aisle.
The opposition, if it surfaces, would likely be in reaction to a tax hike, Mr. Smith said, particularly if any of the additional funding raised is used for anything other than highways. A major boost to infrastructure investment would likely require an increase in the federal motor fuel tax, Mr. Smith said, and some of that typically goes to fund things like mass transit, trails and beautification.
“I prefer to call it [the motor fuel tax] a user fee,” Mr. Smith said. Although congested and unsafe highway conditions are costly for CRST and other trucking companies, Mr. Smith said all Americans eventually share in the higher costs through the goods they buy.
Mr. Smith was not the only Iowan in the ATA delegation. Rhonda Hartman, an Old Dominion Freight Lines driver from Des Moines, attended as a member of the ATA’s “America’s Road Team” crew of driver-spokespersons.
In a press release, ATA President and CEO Chris Spear voiced support for the Republican-backed effort to repeal and replace the ACA.
“The Affordable Care Act is just plain unaffordable,” he said. “Replacing this law will help trucking employees, their families and our customers by lowering insurance costs, decreasing mandates, liabilities and administrative burdens, and providing access to quality care and patient choice.”
The replacement bill was withdrawn the following day by Republican leaders after failing to garner enough support for passage from House Republicans, and virtually no support from House Democrats. Mr. Smith did not appear taken aback by the bill’s lack of success, saying “once you give a benefit program out, it’s difficult to retract it.”
Health care costs have continued to escalate at CRST in the last two years, and Mr. Smith believes the Affordable Care Act is part of the problem.
“It’s not inconsequential, so we sure want something done,” Mr. Smith said.
CRST is one of the nation’s largest transportation companies with more than 4,500 trucks and annual revenues well over $1 billion.