We Must Reinvest in Our Crumbling Infrastructure | Commentary
Last year, America’s deteriorating roads cost drivers more than $67 billion in repairs and operating costs, or about $324 per driver. Subpar and sometimes dangerous road conditions are quickly becoming a widespread problem throughout the country. Unless action is taken to reinvest in our failing infrastructure, the long-term cost to our economy and taxpayers will be devastating.
Maintenance of our highway system falls jointly on the states and the federal government, with about 80 percent of highway funding coming from the federally administered Highway Trust Fund. Currently, the trust fund allocates about $50 billion annually to the states for upkeep of the system. This annual allotment has two major problems: We’re spending about $16 billion more annually than the trust fund is bringing in, and we’re not spending enough to keep our infrastructure from crumbling.
The funding situation for the Highway Trust Fund became dire last year, when Congress was forced to act to temporarily infuse the fund with money from sources that have nothing to do with roads and bridges. This temporary infusion simply kicks the can down the road, only sustaining the fund until May, when we will again have to act to ensure it remains solvent.
Funding for the Highway Trust Fund comes from several sources designed as user fees, including fees on large vehicles and various fuels. The goal of this structure is to ensure that those who receive the benefits of the highway system are also the ones who pay to maintain it. The most well-known funding mechanism is the federal gas tax. Originally implemented at just 1 cent per gallon in 1932, it was last increased in 1993 from 14.1 cents per gallon to 18.4 cents per gallon. However, it is a dwindling funding source for many reasons.
First, because it isn’t indexed for inflation, the tax only buys about 63 percent of the materials and labor it did per dollar in 1993. Second, as vehicles become more efficient, or switch to alternative fuel sources, the gas tax collects less and less money per mile driven. These factors have contributed significantly to the looming insolvency of the trust fund.
To this end, I have been working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to develop solutions within a commonsense framework, without establishing more government bureaucracy. This framework is dependent on three pillars: ensuring the Highway Trust Fund is adequately funded in the near-term, developing a long-term, sustainable funding mechanism and maintaining funding for the trust fund through a “user-pays” system. Adhering to these pillars will ensure the trust fund is able to keep up with the demands of our national infrastructure.
The first pillar, adequately funding the trust fund in the near-term, is crucial due to the fund’s looming insolvency in May of this year. “Near-term,” however, should not mean “short-term.” Any successful proposal to extend the solvency of the trust fund must create certainty and predictability by ensuring several years of funding, not several months. Alternatively, a plan that may raise sufficient revenues over the long term, but cannot be quickly implemented, is equally ineffective.
The second pillar, developing a long-term and sustainable funding mechanism, will ensure our roads and bridges not only improve, but never fall into the state of disrepair that so many are in today. This second pillar works in conjunction with the first; by ensuring the trust fund’s solvency for the next several years, innovative solutions — which may need time to be implemented — can be put into place to sustain the trust fund. This goal of indefinite sustainability will allow states to plan adequately, creating certainty and predictability for construction companies, workers, and the millions of businesses and families that rely on safe, reliable infrastructure every day.
Finally, the third pillar, maintaining a “user-pays” funding mechanism for the Highway Trust Fund, ensures those who receive the most benefit from our roadways continue to help keep them functional. The current structure of fees to fund the Highway Trust Fund was based on this “user-pays” principle, but due to increases in fuel efficiency and the advent of alternative fuel vehicles, they are bringing in less revenue. An updated “user-pays” model will allow the trust fund to bring in funding that is proportional to the wear placed on our roads by its users.
As we develop a solution to our national infrastructure problem, it’s important to give due consideration to all available options, including smart modifications to our tax code or changes to the gas tax. America’s infrastructure is too important to allow it to deteriorate any further. We must act now to ensure our highway system is sustainable. Jobs, the economy and the American people depend on it.
Rep. James B. Renacci, R-Ohio, is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.