Anyone in general aviation who is unaware of the user fee proposals currently being debated in Congress must be singularly disconnected from aviation media.
What most of us do not realize is that we are not the only people being threatened by user fees and increased federal fuel taxes.
Tucked away in the administration’s FY2008 budget are a number of unpleasant surprises for transportation businesses across the board. Take commercial barges, for example.
The administration is seeking user fees for commercial barge operations “to help pay for the rising cost of maintaining the nation’s aging waterways infrastructure.”
Barge operators currently pay a federal tax on diesel fuel of 20 cents a gallon, identical to GA’s fuel tax. That revenue goes into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which defrays half the cost of inland waterways construction projects and major repairs, much as the Aviation Trust Fund offsets similar aviation costs.
While the budget’s opaque language makes it hard to get at specific details of the waterways proposal, it appears to include a federal fuel tax increase to 70 cents a gallon – again, the same as is proposed for aviation fuel – and fees for a variety of day-to-day commercial barge (not to mention recreational boating) operations. They are vaguely defined but apparently would afflict nearly everyone who uses America’s waterways.
Organizations such as the American Waterways Operators and the Lake Carriers Association point out that barges carry more than 60% of America’s grain exports and 20% of its coal, economically and cleanly. Those cargoes represent some $8.5 billion in annual exports. The industry typically contributes a bit more than $90 million a year to the Waterways Trust Fund, which enjoys average balances in excess of $350 million, reaching $394 million at its 2002 peak. The industry has contributed nearly $1.6 billion in fuel tax revenue to the fund since its inception in 1986, with interest on the tidy balance having added another $302 million.
Where, then, is the shortfall claimed by the administration?
The same place as in the Aviation Trust Fund: in phony math and artificial assumptions.
I’ve used the barge industry as an example comparable to general aviation, but the user fees and increased fuel tax proposals don’t stop there. The budget asks that they be imposed on railroads, trucking businesses, commercial and sport fishermen, recreational watercraft and many others as well.
It looks to me as though we should be standing together to fight the proposed federal budget. Separately, our arguments can be picked apart by politicians and by business segments – such as the airlines – that actually would benefit from the duplicitous way these user fees and fuel taxes would be allotted. As things stand, however, we are barely aware of one another’s woes, if at all.
The Alliance for Aviation Across America and the AeroBlue organization already are bringing together diverse groups that benefit from aviation. They range among communities and cattlemen, ranchers and farmers, health care systems and a variety of charities. Speaking with one voice, these groups are wielding substantial power as they testify before a Congress with little knowledge of, or interest in, general aviation.
You can bet that Congress also has precious little knowledge of the barge industry, or of railroads and trucking businesses, which should stand side by side with general aviation. Let’s include sport and commercial fishermen, also affected, as is all of recreational boating. Let’s go all out to find other natural allies and bring them all into one fold.
If the Alliance for Aviation Across America membership can get the attention of Congress, think of the power (for which read campaign contributions) represented by the whole broad spectrum of air, sea, rail and recreational interests affected by the proposed budget.
Acting together, we should be able to get the point across.
Thomas F. Norton is GAN’s Senior Editor.
Alliance opposes compromise bill
The Alliance for Aviation Across America joined the League of Rural Voters, American Corn Growers Association, Air Care Alliance, the Mississippi Livestock Markets Association, small businesses, and elected officials to express “grave concerns” about the Senate Commerce Committee bill for FAA reauthorization. According to the Alliance, the proposal also includes a tax cut for airlines, to be offset by additional taxes on the small businesses, farmers, air medical services and flight schools that use GA planes.