Mayor Pete, congratulations on being confirmed as our next Secretary of Transportation. You seem like a really smart young guy, and have made history as the first openly gay man to lead such a post. I have been impressed with your logic, common sense, and decency. The transportation industry could use a man like you.
You have a momentous task ahead of you. Even though we are the wealthiest country in the world, our nation ranks 13th in the world for our infrastructure. President Biden has spoken about the poor conditions of our roads and bridges and has listed a number of bridges in dangerous condition. At the end of March, Biden announced The American Jobs Plan, a sweeping $2.3 trillion plan to fix our highways and bridges, update our power grid, and renovate our broadband network, among other innovation.
We have common ground. I have been a professional truck driver for 32 years – traversing our nation to deliver goods that help keep our nation’s economy strong. I know that our roads and bridges need repair and improvement. The state of our roads is so bad that my truck is equipped with a camera that records accidents – or “events” – that might be caused by deteriorating roads.
We agree that the roads need to be funded, so let’s look at how we fund them. We have tolls. We also have excessive Federal Excise Taxes on new trucks. Unfortunately, we both know that these forms of income do not provide enough funding to implement the changes we need.
On March 26th, alongside Biden’s infrastructure plan announcement, you floated the idea of implementing a vehicle mileage tax (VMT), which means that Americans would pay a per-mile fee based on their use of the road network. In your words, it would be a way for all Americans to place a “generational investment” in infrastructure.
Respectfully, Mr. Secretary, the VMT is complicated and seems expensive to calculate and collect. It just creates more paperwork that we don’t need. From my perspective, keeping things simpler is better. The fuel tax is simple, and we should raise it if you have to. Not only is it easy to collect, it also rewards efficiency. The safest most efficient way to go is a professionally-driven, new truck on a limited-access highway.
We should also remove the Federal Excise Tax imposed on long-haul trucks. Just like how we need to update our roads, we also need to update our trucks to be more fuel-efficient, eco-friendly, and safe. Currently, the excise tax is a barrier to modernizing our fleet of trucks. In short, the Federal Excise tax is a barrier to both safety and efficiency. We should get rid of it.
For example, I was once heading north out of Dekalb, IL towards Lake Geneva Wisconsin one night in my 2019 Freightliner. The road was IL Route 47, which is a tow lane with some curves in it. It was 35 and raining – scary conditions for a trucker. On one of the curves, my drive axle broke traction, creating a potential jackknife situation. As a driver, I was being careful and driving slowly, but the truck did all the right things as well. You could actually hear the traction control system doing its thing. Within a few feet, the truck and I righted ourselves. That would have been far more difficult in a less modern truck.
As the mayor of South Bend, you probably saw a lot of trucks taking US 20 instead of the interstate. Once, a young man almost died under the wheels of my trailer on US 20. It was a snowy night, and I was delivering paper rolls from Green Bay to Willard, OH. I was eastbound on US 20, and a young man in a new SUV hit my trailer, which knocked him sideways more than 100 feet. Honestly, I thought that I may have killed him.
Well, thank goodness for airbags, because he was alright. He was a really nice young man, and still wearing his shirt and tie from going to church that day. He actually apologized to me when he found out that yes, my safety score would be damaged, but I was just glad that he was alright. 4,000,000 miles and that is the closest that I have come to seriously injure someone – or worse. It took me about 2 hours to stop shaking and drive.
That is not the only accident that I have been involved in throughout my decades of experience on the road. I’ve seen an 87-year-old man total a late 70s two-door Caprice Classic on his drive home. Another time a woman in an old Maxima took out her rear-view mirror while sharing the interstate with several 18-wheelers. Unfortunately, seeing accidents on the road is just a part of my job. Sometimes they are minor fender-benders, other times they are more serious.
We both know that our roads need to be smarter and safer, Mayor Pete. I am glad that you and President Biden are working hard to better the lives of so many Americans. But at the end of the day, please keep truckers like me – the people who are on the road every day – in your thoughts when you make these changes. Our industry is hurting, and we cannot go through another complicated tax that could sink us.
Jeff Clark is a 34-year veteran truck driver. He earned a BA in Business Administration from Governors State University. During the day, Jeff loaded trucks, and at night he went to class. The overall health of professional truckers is one of Jeff’s major concerns. Jeff became a runner and has finished 11 full marathons.
After being featured in Runners World magazine in 2009, Jeff started a Facebook group to encourage other truckers to exercise. Truckin’ Runners currently has over 1,000 members. Jeff wrote columns for Drivers Health and Truckers News magazines between 2009-2012. After that, he was one of 6 owner operators chosen to represent Freightliner in their Team Run Smart program. He has left the program, but still remains an active advocate for truckers.