America’s crumbling infrastructure desperately needs funding

Congress should act now to avoid a transportation fiscal cliff in 2015

January 17, 2014 7:00AM ET
A collapsed bridge on Interstate 5 in May 2013, near Mt. Vernon, Wash. The highway connects Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Last month, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., introduced the Update, Promote and Develop America’s Transportation Essentials (Update) Act. The bill lays out a clear road map for how to restore and modernize the United States’ surface-transportation system. 

Much of the recent debate on infrastructure investment has focused on economic stimulus and job creation. While these are important considerations, Americans shouldn’t lose sight of a simpler fact: Their roads need repairs and maintenance, which requires investment. For far too long, lawmakers have ignored upgrading our aging infrastructure for other priorities. Americans are now paying the price. Although this is obvious from our congested highways, roads strewn with potholes and aging bridges, a careful examination of the evidence is sobering.

Last year the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issued its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The report assigned grades to 16 categories of infrastructure, including roads, bridges, ports, rail, aviation, public parks and recreation and energy. Each was assessed using rigorous criteria in eight areas: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience and innovation. The nation’s infrastructure received a overall grade of D+. Roads and transit fared only slightly better, with grades of D, and bridges received a C+.

Most of the U.S. interstate highway system was built in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, it was a pioneering, ambitious project designed to connect people and drive commerce. We are still coasting on our grandparents’ investments. If the United States is to continue on the path to economic recovery and remain competitive in a global world, it is time for some major renovations to our infrastructure.

The country faces daunting challenges with a combination of backlogs on repair projects and a growing need for alternative forms of travel. Currently more than 40 percent of major U.S. urban highways are congested, costing taxpayers time and money. On average, a typical American commuter loses 34 hours sitting in traffic each year — nearly an entire week of work. That’s the equivalent of missing 17 of your child’s little-league games. In addition to time wasted, our ailing roads and bridges directly affect the pocketbooks of American families. About 32 percent of U.S. interstates and major highways are in poor or mediocre condition. These substandard roads result in drivers’ paying $67 billion, or $324 per motorist, annually in vehicle repairs and operating costs. Nearly 45 percent of Americans still lack access to transit, and young people are increasingly demanding more options than driving a car.

The United States is considered one of the most developed nations in the world, yet our transportation system has long since stopped being the envy of other countries. Most of the U.S.’s major economic competitors in Europe and Asia have already invested in and are reaping the benefits of improved competitiveness from intermetropolitan high-speed rail systems. America’s roads are ranked 19th in the world, behind even developing Namibia’s, according to the ASCE’s 2011 Failure to Act surface-transportation study. Simply continuing to invest at the same meager levels in the nation’s existing transportation infrastructure may not be enough to maintain the United States’ standing in the global economy in the long run.    

The Highway Trust Fund is expected to become insolvent by the end of this year.

The safety of our roadways continues to be a major concern. Statistics indicate that road conditions are a significant factor in approximately one-third of U.S. traffic fatalities. Roadway fatalities have generally been on the decline since 2005, but in 2012 the number of fatalities went up, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. These crashes cost the U.S. economy $230 billion each year. Reducing exposure to obstructions, adding or improving median barrier systems and widening lanes and shoulders offer opportunities to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities.

State and local officials are beginning to tackle some of these concerns. In 2013, governors in Virginia and Ohio increased funding in order to address surface-transportation issues. Virginia replaced its gas tax with a sales tax to fund major improvements across the state. In Pennsylvania a law went into effect this month that will pump billions of dollars into improvements to the state’s highways, bridges and mass-transit systems. Maryland, Vermont and Massachusetts are raising their gas taxes to adequately fund maintenance of their roads and bridges. And Wyoming began funding new projects with revenue raised from a gas-tax increase that took effect in July.

The federal government needs to follow suit by continuing this momentum. According to a recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonprofit think tank that works on state and federal tax policies, the gas tax is the single most important source of transportation funding for the federal government. Together, taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel raise more than $30 billion per year, or 85 percent of the revenue flowing into the nation’s transportation spending, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Without a federal fuel tax, several departments of transportation across the country would see up to half their funding disappear for capital projects.

Since the creation of the interstate system in 1956, the Highway Trust Fund, which provides funding for the U.S.’s transportation system, has been supported by revenue collected from road users. This pay-as-you-go system has served the country well, allowing states to plan, construct and improve the surface-transportation network. However, for the past five years, user-based revenue streams have fallen far short of what is needed. People are using less gas with more fuel-efficient cars. In addition, the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax has not been adjusted for inflation since 1993 and has thus lost one-third of its purchasing power. In short, the Highway Trust Fund is taking in less money than it is spending.

The Update Act proposes gradually increasing the federal gas tax by 15 cents. Unless Congress acts by passing the Update Act or another long-term revenue solution, the Highway Trust Fund is expected to become insolvent by the end of this year. The Update Act is an attempt to prevent this impending insolvency.

This is not a new problem. The Highway Trust Fund first saw insufficient revenue and cash balances to meet its obligations in 2008. At the time, Congress authorized an $8 billion cash infusion from the Treasury’s general fund. By the end of 2014, a total of $54 billion, including $18.8 billion authorized by Congress in 2012, will be transferred from the general fund to the highway fund account to maintain its solvency. Since every dollar in the Highway Trust Fund goes toward surface transportation and mass-transit projects, the solvency of the fund is paramount to improving the nation’s infrastructure.

Several organizations — such as the ASCE, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Automobile Association and the American Trucking Association — expressed support for financing solutions like a gas-tax increase to boost revenue for the nation’s surface-transportation infrastructure. The proposed 15-cent increase would cost the average driver less than $3 per week. Unless properly maintained, the deteriorating surface-transportation system will cost the average American family $1,060 per year by 2020, according to the Failure to Act study. In the long term, the gas-tax increase would save American families money, revitalize U.S. businesses and grow our economy.

The nation, along with its patchwork infrastructure, is facing a transportation fiscal cliff in 2015. Congress must take swift action to find a long-term revenue solution if the country is to maintain its economic prosperity in the coming century.

Patrick J. Natale, P.E., is the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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