Congress once again is at a crossroads as they debate funding for future transportation projects. If recent history is any indication, we might not see definitive action anytime soon. Still, we are faced with two distinct possible outcomes. The first — an admittedly politically difficult option — would be to pass a long-term highway and transit bill that fully funds the infrastructure needs of the nation. The second would be to pass another short-term extension of the current transportation program, known as MAP-21, and deal with the larger funding issues sometime down the road.
Unfortunately, this Congress has not yet shown the type of leadership needed to move forward with a fully funded long-term bill, and time is running out. Having already passed two short term extensions of MAP-21, a tough vote looms in the horizon and the political mettle of our elected officials will be tested before the end of summer.
The looming question of the debate is not: Should we fund infrastructure? The question that is stumping officials is: Where should the money come from? You will be hard pressed to find a congressman or senator from either party that doesn’t publicly acknowledge the need to increase the investment of infrastructure. Though, when pressed, few answers are forthcoming about how they plan to pay for those investments.
The federal gas tax, which is the main funding vehicle for the Highway Trust Fund, was first created in 1956 and last increased in 1993. The gas tax still stands at 18.3 cents per gallon of gas at the pump. An increase in infrastructure demands, inflation and vehicle fuel efficiency have all slowly eroded the trust fund and created a $53 billion dollar deficit over the past seven years. That daunting figure represents the deficit for funding authorizations, currently set at around $52 billion per year. Experts agree that if we are to fully fund our transportation needs we should be spending many times that amount. To illustrate, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently rated the nation’s infrastructure a D+, and estimated a needed investment of $3.6 trillion dollars by 2020.
Similarly, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, 54 percent of America’s major roads are rated poor or mediocre, and one in four bridges need significant repair or can’t handle today’s traffic. Most of us remember the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota in 2007 which killed 13 people and injured another 145. It was previously unthinkable to daily commuters that lives were in jeopardy due to ignored bridge maintenance. What people don’t often realize is that of the 33,500 U.S. traffic fatalities per year, one-third of those deaths, or just over 11,000 people, are killed by poor infrastructure and road conditions.
From an economic standpoint, the numbers are just as staggering. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce indicates that a decaying transportation system costs our economy more than $78 billion in lost time and fuel. Also not generally considered is the cost to our economy in terms of delayed goods that are moved around our country starting at our ports and ending in stores and homes.
The Highway Trust Fund is predicted to run out of money by August of this year. We will quickly learn if our political leaders in Washington are ready to take a tough vote and invest in America’s infrastructure or once again kick the can down the road and blindly pretend that our roads, bridges and transit systems are not in a state of disrepair. At some point not too far off in the distance, it is going to cost us much more by doing nothing than it will to invest in our future now.
John Bryant is Senior Director for Federal Affairs for NAIOP.