Ex-Marine turned street warrior

Pete Ruane, a retired U.S. Marine, says his biggest battle these days is convincing Congress that the roads he takes to work need improving. 

“The only combat I have now is driving to work every day,” said Ruane, who is president of The American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA). 

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He laughed. “Nobody’s shooting at me, but let me tell you, it’s stressful.” 

But the condition of the nation’s roads and bridges is no laughing matter, Ruane added during a recent interview with The Hill.

Ruane has spent 35 years in the transportation game. He worked as a lobbyist for the trucking and storage industry for nearly a decade before moving on to ARTBA in 1988 to represent the companies that build and maintain the nation’s infrastructure.

He disagrees with the conventional wisdom in Washington that the problem with road and transit funding is the reliance on the federal gasoline tax, which feeds the Transportation Trust Fund that Congress metes out to the states.

Critics say the system is broken since it generates approximately $35 billion a year to cover spending that exceeds $50 billion. Advocates and lawmakers have called for an overhaul, with some pushing to eliminate the tax altogether and find new sources of funding.

Ruane, although not opposed to additional sources of funding for the trust fund, is against junking the old method.

“We’ve had this for, gosh, decades,” he said of using the gas tax. “It works, and it’s equitable. 

“We have about five states just in recent months that have increased their user fees and some indexing [of gas taxes to inflation]. The trust fund isn’t broke. It’s a vehicle that has worked and delivered over the years.” 

Ruane said much of the problem is that the federal gas tax has stood at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. Ruane said the tax to be increased — something Congress has declined to do.

The other problem, he said, is the short-term nature of the transportation funding bills that have been passing Congress. Because funding is coming up short, it is harder for lawmakers to pass long-term bills committing larger sums than anticipated in revenue.

“The ideal solution would include a long-term piece of legislation,” Ruane said. “Instead of a two-year … thing, we need a five- or six-year bill.” 

Congress passed a two-year, $105 billion surface transportation bill in 2012 that is already set to expire in September 2014. 

Ruane said that measure, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), contained “some outstanding policy changes, which we’ve yet to see the benefit of because they’re just now implementing them.” 

“What we need to do with MAP-21 is maintain those policy changes and fully fund the thing,” he said.

Many infrastructure projects that were funded by the 2012 legislation will just be getting underway when money runs out next year. Officials, bankers, contractors, sub-contractors, workers and the public all will have to wait — at mounting expense — until (and if) the funding is again approved.

Ruane admits the playing field has changed now that transportation bills must be passed without earmarks. Leaders of both parties traditionally used funding for specific road and transit projects as plums to win support for large transportation bills. 

That changed when Republicans took control of the House in 2011 and instituted a moratorium on earmarks. 

“You can’t go hibernate and say, ‘See you in six years,’” like lobbyists did when older multi-year transportation bills were passed, Ruane said. 

It is up to him, Ruane said, and other transportation lobbyists to convince Congress that they can fix the problems hindering road and transit projects. 

He is optimistic Congress will be able to pass a longer transportation bill when the current measure expires. 

“It’s not naïve optimism,” he said, and used a saying from his Marine days to emphasize preparedness. “We’ve got a lot of salt in our socks, as we used to say.”

When he left the Marine Corps, Ruane did stints in the 1970s at the Department of Defense’s Office of Economic Adjustment and on former President Carter’s Economic Adjustment Committee. He went on to serve for nine years as president of the National Moving and Storage Association before coming to ARTBA in 1988.

Ruane noted that he has been lobbying for transportation funding at the association under two Democratic presidents and two Republicans. The walls of his Georgetown office display pictures of him with former presidents and Transportation Committee chairmen from both parties. 

He prides himself on being bipartisan in his approach to lobbying. 

“We support people who support transportation investment. It’s not about their parties — it’s about their beliefs.” 

Ruane described his path from the defense sector to lobbying for transportation as a natural progression. 

“It wouldn’t be circuitous,” he said. “It’s more direct than I ever anticipated. I wouldn’t say it’s an accident, but I didn’t start out planning to be someone [who] is an advocate for transportation investment and development, but that’s how it turned out.” 

Ruane likes the job he has held now for 25 years because transportation “touches everybody.” 

“You can’t get to work or go on vacation without it,” he said. “You can only walk so far.” 

His Marine Corps years may be long in the past, but the experience remains part of Ruane, as became evident when he talked about the struggle to move Congress on transportation funding. He said he and ARTBA would not be afraid to lead the fight.

“We walk point on this stuff,” he said. “If you want to draw a parallel to the Marine Corps, we’re not sitting here in the rear with the gear. We lead from the front, and we’re not afraid to lose. Some say we may be too aggressive, but you can never be too aggressive, especially when you’re right.”