Ed Talks: We Need New Federal Investment to Make America’s Infrastructure Great Again

The transportation network of the United States is a remarkable system that connects the nearly 3.8 million square miles of America regionally, over land and water, and from corner to corner.

Infrastructure is the underpinning of every aspect of our lives. Without it, merchandise could not leave or come into our ports, public transportation and roads could not get us to work and our children to school, and there wouldn’t be any bridges to move many people beyond their states.

Life, as we know it, would grind to a halt.

Our modern heritage is rooted in a safe, fast-moving and high-volume federal Interstate Highway System that came to life more than 60 years ago. “The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 increased authorizations for the Federal-aid Primary and Secondary Systems and authorized significant funding of the Interstate System,” according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). “The Highway Revenue Act of that same year established a budgetary mechanism — the HTF [Highway Trust Fund] — with dedicated revenues to fund the expanded highway program.”

Whether by land, water or air, mobility and travel in the United States have long made it possible to grow communities, start businesses, build venues for sports and entertainment, move energy and agricultural products, seed hospitals and universities, and tap into transformational technologies.

But in Mississippi, dilapidated timber bridges have set off a wave of closures and improvements; Kentucky is facing a $1 billion backlog in maintenance and paving alone; light-rail funding has become a focus in Washington state; Congressman Ben Cline (R-VA-6th District) recently spoke to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee about what Virginia is doing for aging Interstate 81, but noted that federal resources are also needed; bottlenecks throughout our country negatively impact schedules and traffic flow; and gridlock costs motorists $170 billion a year in wasted time and fuel costs, according to the national transportation research group TRIP.

States are enacting legislation to ramp up their disparate transportation budgets and fund regional infrastructure projects, but the FHWA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), has historically and continually worked to keep America’s roads safe and technologically sound.

The states are doing their parts, but now we need the new federal-investment piece too.

Our great nation functions through, and because of, a network of highways, bridges, tunnels, public-transit systems, interchanges and, increasingly, walkable and bikable towns and cities. The global technology companies and vineyards in California, the finance hubs of New York, the parks and manufacturers in the Midwest, the destination spots of the East Coast and southern states, and the aquaculture of New England are all part of a geographic web that links Americans as well as commerce and trade.

But the threads of this web are thinning and the signs that we need to modernize America’s infrastructure are omnipresent. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave U.S. infrastructure a grade of D+ and identified a 10-year $2 trillion investment gap.

Our policymakers need to figure out how to sustainably finance and fund the commitments we must make to address our overburdened transportation network. Revenue for America’s surface transportation is authorized through Congress and the current legislation will expire in 2020.

The HTF provides federal government spending for highways and mass transit. But that fund — like a bank account that is running low — is no longer able to cover all of the expenses it did. This is because its revenue stream (similar to an income) is tied to transportation-related excise taxes, mostly federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, that have stayed the same for 26 years.

This model is not tenable. While it is clear we need to consider fresh ways to create transportation revenue (including linchpin private investment), raising the federal gas tax is not a radical notion. U.S. infrastructure investment and improvements do not happen in silos or a vacuum. The funding must come from somewhere and, generally, most states cannot, have not and do not fully fund all of their transportation needs and projects, including those that keep roads safe and get bridges replaced.

In more recent years, the HTF has needed significant transfers of general fund revenues to remain solvent, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.  This is why we are asking Congress to explore all the ways in which our nation can raise transportation revenue, but we believe the answers should ensure equitable user fees that help pay for the system.

There are transportation projects throughout America that need federal investment. In New Hampshire, a university, researchers, state funding, an engaged community and elected officials helped bring to fruition a new “living” Memorial Bridge (a smart structure equipped with sensors that are powered by tidal turbines), but so did vital federal monies.

Of late, we have heard about citizens voting to increase state gas taxes to raise transportation revenue, but this does not obfuscate the pivotal roles of federal policies and programs, such as those for safety improvements, block grants and congestion management.

The FHWA supports state and local governments in the design, construction, and maintenance of the nation’s highway system (Federal Aid Highway Program) and various federally and tribal owned lands (Federal Lands Highway Program), and we do not think this should change.

Steam engines and railroads helped our nation advance hundreds of years ago; however, it was our pioneering highway system that gave our country a competitive advantage in the world, and our multimodal and interconnected transportation grid fueled a great economy.

Our federally connected roads, bridges and mass transit helped America excel, but other countries’ infrastructures are surpassing ours.

Americans should not find this acceptable.

Now, more than ever, we can’t shirk our federal responsibilities. Our national transportation system, federal investment and wide-spanning connectivity keep us safe, able to enjoy a good quality of life, and advance our society and economy.

America was once a beacon and standard-bearer in the world and a robust infrastructure package will help us become these things again.

Ed Mortimer is the Executive Director of ATM & Vice President of Transportation and Infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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