Mike Hancock, secretary of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) and newly elected president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), believes that figuring out how to fund both near- and long-term U.S. transportation needs is going to be “the single toughest issue we face” and will represent one of AASHTO’s top priorities in the coming years.

“We’ve got to make sure Congress and the American people understand that the highway trust fund [HTF] is not able to sustain itself and will not provide the funds we so desperately need to maintain and expand our transportation networks in this country,” he explained in a telephone interview with Fleet Owner.

Hancock added that the biggest near-term hurdle where funding is concerned revolves around the impending expiration of “MAP-21” (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act) legislation that funds federal transportation efforts next year.

The second deals with the HTF, which is expected to contain little if any monies by 2015 without what Hancock calls “aggressive” action. “Remember, too, that the 2015 federal fiscal year actually begins on Oct. 1, 2014, so we have a small time window to act,” he noted.

Hancock stressed, though, that AASHTO is not recommending any one particular transportation funding solution. “We’re trying to establish a ‘menu’ of options Congress to consider; we’re not prescribing or favoring any particular set,” he explained. “We can only list potential options of how it can be done; it’s up to Congress to decide what to use.”

That being said, while increased use of highway tolls is certainly one of those options “on the table,” it’s not one AASHTO puts at the top of “best funding options” list. “It’s not our first thought as the best way to generate transportation funds,” Hancock pointed out.

In terms of freight-specific themes, Hancock emphasized that future transportation proposals should not pit “modes against one another.”

“It really should not be an issue, for example, of rail vs. truck as we try to address freight shipment needs,” he noted. “As I look down the road, there will be plenty of opportunity for every [freight transportation] mode and we’ll want to make sure opportunities are available for all of them.”

Hancock added that one subtle challenge in all of this is re-igniting what he dubs the “vision” that once guided transportation strategy many decades ago.

“Linking the nation together in order to move people and freight better is what drove the foundation of our transportation system for many years,” he explained. “But now that ‘vision’ is largely built out and in many cases transportation is taken for granted."

Look at e-Commerce, Hancock said. “Here in Kentucky we have an Amazon distribution center that ships out all the goods customers order online,” he noted. “For most customers, they order something on their PC at night and then it ‘magically appears’ a few days later on their door step. But how that commerce moves is critical. That is a huge story to tell and we need to tell it better.”

These are themes similar to those echoed by AASHTO’s new executive director Frederick “Bud” Wright, who took over from the previous director John Horsley back in January this year, and are ones Hancock hopes to pursue during his term as the group’s president.

“This is a critical time for transportation agencies across the country as we grapple with uncertain Federal funding in the face of ever-increasing transportation needs,” said Hancock. “A top priority for our nation must be to achieve economic stability through a strong and sustainable level of transportation investment.”