Friday, September 15, 2017

Alt-Facts Tar A Low-Road Assault

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Alt-Facts Tar A Low-Road Assault

Watching Washington, September 2017: How will we ever communicate without communication?” was asked in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1958 musical, Flower Drum Song. Six decades later, communication is under assault from so-called “alt-facts”—intellectual vandalism polluting social media.

Particularly disturbing is an otherwise responsible trade association brewing a skunk-like stew containing long-debunked chestnuts about 19th century railroad land grants and other spurious myths. In an opinion column aimed at Capitol Hill, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) launches an unprovoked, unsubstantiated and undignified attack on railroads that is impervious to explanation beyond hopes of shifting congressional focus from adjusting inadequate big-truck highway user charges so they better-match bridge and pavement damage caused.

Creating cesspools of misinformation fertilize negative impressions of corporate America. A Gallup poll found some 40% of Americans have “little or no confidence” in big business.

Consider the positives had ATA taken the high road, perhaps encouraging education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to accelerate development of autonomous freight-carrying vehicles that, unlike rogue human truck drivers, won’t engage in homicidal highway tailgating of family sedans.

ATA could have promoted artificial intelligence to design a more equitable road pricing formula than the antiquated per-gallon fuels tax that drove the Highway Trust Fund insolvent. Or ATA could have encouraged more collaborative intermodal public-private partnerships to improve supply chain efficiency and speed.

But ATA chose a low road, using alt-facts to allege “freight railroads have historically enjoyed subsidies through land grants, and continue to receive federal subsidies. In 2014-2015,” ATA alleges, railroads “received $135 million in federal grants under the TIGER program [and] freight railroads are protected by federal laws that allow them to minimize competition and enjoy subsidies not afforded to trucking companies.”

Land grant subsidies? Congress determined in 1946 that “the government has gotten all and more than it bargained for in the original land grant transaction [and it is time to] relieve the land grant railroads of the injustice of being required to continue to make payments on a debt that has long been extinguished.”

TIGER grants? The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Discretionary Grant Program primarily funds highway projects, transit and passenger rail—the funds going to states and localities. No private entity is eligible. Where freight railroads benefit, freight rail pays.

Freight railroads protected from competition? Economic regulation remains for rail shippers lacking effective transportation alternatives. At least 95% of rail traffic faces barge or truck competition. It was ATA that once unsuccessfully opposed economic deregulation, preferring to preserve a pre-1980 regulatory scheme protecting truckers from competing among themselves, and retain regulatory rate floors on competitive traffic to benefit truckers.

Subsidies not afforded truckers? Privately owned freight railroads are the only mode that constructs, maintains and pays property taxes on its infrastructure. When traffic declines, railroad infrastructure costs remain. Truckers pay already inadequate user charges only when actually operating on public highways, with automobiles providing a cross-subsidy.

ATA ignores that wherever railroads have received government dollars—mostly pre-1980 and primarily loans and loan-guarantees, not grants—there were costly regulatory burdens attached, such as branch-line retention and mandatory commuter service. Public aid to motor carriers is measured in independently confirmed inadequate highway user charges that further ignore costs for policing, snow removal and property taxes—costs railroads pay on privately owned infrastructure.

Wretchedly, ATA uses railroads as a stereotypical red herring to divert attention from studies showing that increases in maximum truck weights cause crash rates to rise exponentially; and that a higher 91,000-pound weight limit would create more than $1 billion in additional bridge costs.

With the American Society of Civil Engineers putting a $4 trillion price tag on repair and renewal of America’s aging infrastructure—most relating to highways, and with the Highway Trust Fund cupboard bare—national economic and security imperatives beg for a positive, collaborative intermodal response, not an alt-fact assault by truckers on a crucial supply chain partner.












Frank N. Wilner, Contributing Editor

Frank N. Wilner is author of six books, including, Amtrak: Past, Present, Future; Understanding the Railway Labor Act; and, Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and labor relations from Virginia Tech. He has been assistant vice president, policy, for the Association of American Railroads; a White House appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board; and director of public relations for the United Transportation Union. He is a past president of the Association of Transportation Law Professionals. Wilner drafted the railroad section of the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Change (Volumes I and II), which were policy blueprints for the two Reagan Administrations; and was a guest columnist for the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine.

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