May 31 has come and gone, and the Highway Trust Fund is fixed–for two months.
No topic has been hotter on highways, or colder in Congress, than infrastructure funding. For the past several months, stakeholders and state leaders have shuddered under siege, awaiting resupply of the starved Highway Trust Fund and advocating and praying for progress on a long-term transportation reform plan.
Instead, last weekend, the government stitched the thirty-third patch onto the shabby suit of motley our infrastructure transportation system has been wearing for twenty-two years. And that’s really not funny.
We at Montway Auto Transport decided to shed some light on the topic.
America’s Infrastructure Fail
Last week on The Daily Show, even Jon Stewart was on top of the issue, calling it wildly important.
Stewart’s guest, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard professor and author of, MOVE: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead, said, “[Our infrastructure is] shabby, it’s deteriorating, it’s behind other countries, it’s an embarrassment, but more than that, it hurts all of us because we’re stuck in traffic, we can’t get to work.”
“The reason I wrote this…it’s our lives, everyday, it’s our families,” said Kanter. She explained the average American family spends up to 20 percent of their household budget on transportation. “Often they’re not getting anywhere with it, so we really have to fix it.”
“If we can’t do that…” Stewart prompted.
“…we can’t do anything,” Kanter finished.
Patching the Problem
As our nation teeters toward transportation catastrophe, the closest Congress has come to a consensus after months of advocacy, debate, and desperation, is a collection of cross-outs and carrots added to the spare Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014 (H.R. 5021). The two-month patch passed on May 29, H.R.2353, the “Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2015 (HATFA),” amends the 2014 act by simply “striking” and “inserting” dollar amounts, and dates to extend the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014 through July 31, 2015.
Extending HATFA for two months is intended to keep highway and transit funding available and encourage summer construction projects, however, it’s way too little, way too late. Increasing indecision and uncertainty over the past few months has already caused many states to cancel or delay millions of dollars in construction, despite Department of Transportation assurances of funding availability through July or early August.
In April, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx stated he wouldn’t oppose another short-term fix from Congress to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent, but only if the “patch” connected to a greater long-term plan. That does not appear to be the case.
For six years, Congress has pressed patch after patch onto outdated authorizations and appropriations.
USA Today equated Congress’s actions and attitudes toward road and transit project funding to, “setting out on a long trip planning to buy gasoline a gallon at a time and hope it lasts until the next station,” a fantastically accurate analogy. Another great analogy would be patching a hole in your roof with dollar bills.
Every long-term proposal put forward, especially over the past year, has met with aggressively opposing arguments.
The administration’s plan, GROW AMERICA, a six-year funding reauthorization bill, would supplement current appropriations to the Highway Trust Fund with a one-time repatriation tax on (currently untaxed) U.S. corporate earnings overseas. The bill has been hindered by debate over budget, funding source, and long-term solvency, partially because the Highway Trust Fund is supported mainly by revenue from a federal gas tax that hasn’t been increased since 1993.
The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) wants to increase fuel taxes and offset the increase with a tax rebate for middle and lower income Americans. “Getting Beyond Gridlock” would fund a six-year highway and mass transit capital investment program. ARTBA says the 15 cents-per-gallon increase in the federal gas and diesel motor fuels tax would sustain the plan for at least ten years.
But lawmakers are terrified of asking consumers to pay more at the pump. This is despite the evident absurdity of expecting a twelve-year-old tax allocation, unadjusted for inflation, to cover the yearly cost of infrastructure maintenance, let alone improvement and innovation.
Vision of Viability
“Judging from our history, it will taking frequent catastrophes for us to pay any attention to this,” Stewart proposed.
“You can’t scare people into change,” disagreed Kanter. “We need to have visions of what’s possible,” she said.
Kanter insists we can move forward, we just need a plan, any plan. She cites options for infrastructure improvement besides physical repair and reform, from connected and automated vehicles and intelligent transportation systems (ITS), sustainability, and shared mobility and transit, to commercial vehicle and freight logistics.
“Whether it’s bullet trains like Japan, whether it’s just getting cars off the road, through ride-sharing, better light rail, that would help make our lives better, as well as help the economy flourish.”
Kanter wants people to know we can do it. “We’re America. We are the Little Engine That Could, or Can, or Will, but not the Little Engine That Can’t and Won’t, which is what we seem to be now.”
America is riding on crumbling infrastructure systems, left to rot under the wheels of growing traffic and congestion, while lawmakers on all sides shy away from taking a stand or asking voters to support tax increases during an election year.
But it appears you can’t scare people away from change either. According to an April poll conducted by the San Jose, Calif. Mineta Transportation Institute, a majority of voters would support paying more than the current gas tax, if the money was designated for specific transportation improvements.
When the poll got more specific, the voters got more interested, just as Kanter predicted. 71 percent of those surveyed would be willing to pay more for maintaining streets, roads, and highways, 64 percent would support the hike if the money is spent on projects to reduce accidents and improve safety, and 59 percent said they would approve of an increase for the addition of modern, technological systems.
Only 31 percent of those polled said they would support a gas tax hike without specifically allocated projects.
“If you don’t have a positive vision, if you don’t believe that change is possible, you’ll say, the government will just waste my money,” said Kanter.
Secretary Foxx has extended an invitation to the American public to be part of DOT’s vision, a thirty-year framework for the future,”Beyond Traffic.” You can visit the site to Tweet, post, and share your thoughts about infrastructure reform.
ARTBA’s Website features tons of info and a Grassroots Action Center with a form you can use to send a letter(s) to your officials about your support.
Future In Our Hands
After HATFA passed the House, the White House issued a statement that President Obama remains committed to a long-term solution to highway funding. But there’s an inherent flaw in expecting Congress to accomplish in two months something it hasn’t been able to come to terms on in six months, let alone find a solution after six years.
Infrastructure reform is too important and vital to be funded by temporary patches. Our outdated infrastructure, over sixty years old, cannot be sustained by half-measures and politically-motivated management.
As trains crash, bridges fail, and Americans find themselves stuck in unnecessary traffic 38 hours a year, public awareness is growing, changing, and getting louder. Legislators need to step up and take action equal to the needs of the nation, not the next election.
As citizens, we can and should take action, too. In addition to engaging on DOT’s “Beyond Traffic” site, you can write or call your Congressmen directly. We can help fix the problem by becoming part of the solutions, broadening our vision to see all the possibilities, as Kanter suggests, and then working to integrate and advocate for those options to become part of a national vision.