Infrastructure 2: Congress and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Roads

How many politicians does it take to make people pay attention to our infrastructure problem? None, apparently. All it takes is John Oliver and a fake movie trailer.

Some people see infrastructure as about as exciting as watching paint dry. We here at the Eno Center for Transportation, a national transportation policy think tank, eat reports on infrastructure for breakfast. And we know that our infrastructure needs much more than a new coat of paint.

The reality is that infrastructure literally is the structure that holds our country together. Without efficient and reliable infrastructure, roads become more dangerous, travel reliability continues to falter and, as John Oliver points out, Hollywood gains an endless supply of bad action movie inspiration. This, in turn, launches an irreversible trickle down effect, and before we all know it, we’re living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with no way to move about and wishing, begging, for the pleasure of watching paint dry. Or at least Fast and Furious 7.

Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But what we cannot overstate is how integral having safe and solid infrastructure is to our nation’s economy. If we want to continue to flourish as a country, we need to invest — and invest wisely — in roads, bridges, airports and mass transit.

This is not news to anyone, but trying to get Congress to agree on a long-term funding solution is a lot like Mission: Impossible: Tom Cruise (or, in this case, Congress) saves the world (the Highway Trust Fund a.k.a. the HTF) at the last second… until the next Mission Impossible installment (when the HTF runs out again). And while Congress always comes to the rescue with a quick fix, it virtually is impossible for states and localities to make wise, long-term investment decisions when their primary funding partner is so incredibly unreliable.

So what do we do?

In his piece, John Oliver asks Speaker Boehner a simple, straightforward question, “How will you raise revenue for the U.S. Highway Trust Fund?”

Speaker Boehner doesn’t answer. But we here at Eno have three possible plot twists that could save our current funding structure:

Solution 1: Just raise the gas tax.

It doesn’t take an economics Ph.D. to realize that if: 1. You need to invest more in infrastructure, and 2. Your gas tax funds these investments, and 3. Your gas tax is among the lowest of all developed nations, and 4. Your gas tax has not been increased or adjusted for inflation since 1993 that, clearly, you should pass a bill naming a post office after Vin Diesel.

No seriously, that you should raise the gas tax. Unfortunately, there is zero momentum behind this eminently reasonable idea. While the President never has voiced support for this concept, he would likely sign a bill raising the gas tax. Congress, however, has failed to generate even the smallest support for such an increase, no matter which party is in power. So we move on to possibility number two…

Solution 2. Use the gas tax revenues we currently have, but add in additional money from general revenues.

Politically, this is something that actually could happen since it’s what we have been doing by default. So yippee-ki-yay, er, Congress. Under this plan, the HTF would continue to fund the majority of transportation investments through formula funds distributed to states and localities (75 percent). The remaining money would come from general funds appropriated by Congress on a multi-year basis. This money would be put towards multimodal national transportation projects and could be used on a discretionary basis to fund our most critical national needs based on a series of objective performance metrics.

Solution 3. Eliminate the Highway Trust Fund.

This permanent solution would put the United States more in line with the rest of the world when it comes to funding transportation. Under this plan, the U.S. would completely scrap the HTF and use the appropriations process to fund transportation. While this is the most dramatic solution and scares transportation stakeholders more than actual snakes on a plane, other countries have been successful at providing sustainable and effective funding for transportation without relying on dedicated gas taxes.

Each solution presents its own unique challenges and a departure from the status quo, but these are challenges well worth our nation’s while.

As John Oliver articulated so well:

“The lack of political urgency in tackling this problem is insane. And you cannot tell me that you are not interested in this, because every summer people flock to see our infrastructure threatened by terrorists or aliens. But we should care just as much when it’s under threat from the inevitable passage of time.”

Congress now has two months to replenish the HTF. If Tom Cruise can complete his Mission: Impossible in just two hours on screen, Congress certainly can come together over the next two months and find a way to pay to fix our crumbling roads and bridges before time really does run out.

To read more about how Eno plans to save U.S. Infrastructure from a very slow and underwhelming destruction, read our report on the Life and Death of the Highway Trust Fund.

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