If you rely on some form of surface transportation—car, bus, mass transit—to get around, you may be in for a shock later this year. The federal government’s Highway Trust Fund, which pays for the upkeep of our roads, bridges and public transit, could go broke as early as August unless Congress acts to restore its solvency.
Needless to say, that would be a disaster not only for the vast majority of Americans, but for our fragile economic recovery.
It should come as a surprise to no one that our neglect of the nation’s surface transportation infrastructure has reached a critical point. This crisis has been years in the making, reflecting a deep lack of political will in Washington to tackle the problem head on.
Fixing the Highway Trust Fund is not rocket science—we need more revenue, a lot more. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s latest projections released last week, we will need $100 billion over the next six years just to continue current funding levels. This doesn’t even include the amount we need to address decades of underinvestment in our surface transportation systems.
If you’re experiencing sticker shock, that’s because our political leaders have failed to level with the American public about what it costs to pay for the modern and safe transit systems, highways and bridges we desperately need. In the absence of that conversation, Congress has let more than 20 years go by without raising the federal gas and diesel fuel tax, the primary source of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund. During that time the fund’s buying power has plunged 33 percent—and the nation’s surface infrastructure has deteriorated so much that the American Society of Civil Engineers has given it a failing grade that should make Americans and our businesses cringe.
We need to address the funding shortfall for the Highway Trust Fund, and we need to do it now. One approach is to raise the gas tax by 15 percent and index it to inflation as we have previously endorsed. Other options can and should be on the table. Yes I wrote it and lightening didn’t strike. We can and should consider a tax increase, but first things first—let’s tell the American people the truth and then build support for additional federal funding.
A good place to start the conversation is by making it clear that the economic recovery will falter unless we act decisively to fix our crumbling infrastructure. As my friend Rich Trumka, the leader of the AFL-CIO, told a Senate hearing today: “Failure to act will mean our transportation system will decay further…and our economic and global competitiveness will be harmed well into the future.” On the other hand, Trumka noted, we will create an estimated 35,000 well-paying jobs for every billion dollars of federal investment in our surface transportation system.
In case you’re wondering, top business leaders are not at odds with this plan. In a rare moment of solidarity, Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sat side-by-side today with Mr. Trumka to urge Congress to fix the Highway Trust Fund before it’s too late.
The stakes are clear: either we pay for the vital infrastructure we need, or we let our transit systems, highways and economy collapse. What are we waiting for?