Every day, drivers across the country stare at the clock, wondering if the traffic jam they’re stuck in will make them late for work. Riders on subways and buses check their watches, wondering how long it will take them to get home.
The nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems are overcrowded and in serious disrepair, leaving commuters to wonder what’s taking so long to get moving. And they are right to wonder. But perhaps the real question is, what is taking our leaders in Washington so long to get infrastructure reform moving?
In theory, we should be able to get both sides of the political aisle to agree on a plan to rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges. An NBC News report published this week noted that close to 55,000 bridges across the U.S. are so decrepit, they could actually be endangering the safety of drivers. This is a clearly bipartisan issue. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t figuring out what needs to get fixed, but determining how to pay for all of these repairs.
The draft plan that leaked from the White House’s infrastructure plan in January doesn’t include specific dollar amounts for any of the initiatives presented. Regrettably, it doesn’t mention raising the gas tax either. This is a mistake.
The problem isn’t figuring out what needs to get fixed, but determining how to pay for all of these repairs.
As President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Transportation for four years, I have experienced first hand the way partisanship can prevent smart people from behaving rationally or efficiently. This is very incredibly important when we consider large-scale and expensive challenges. Who will pay for these improvements? And how?
Public-private partnerships are important for revitalizing our infrastructure, but they’re not enough and they only work on a handful of projects. In order to improve our roads and bridges nationwide, there needs to be a real commitment from the federal government to invest in infrastructure. We need a big pot of money that comes from different sources, including the private sector.
First, we need to raise the gas tax. The 18.4 cent per gallon gas tax has been in place to supply the Highway Trust Fund — which built America and the interstate system — since the 1950s. But Congress hasn’t raised the gas tax in nearly a quarter century, severely affecting the ability to fund and improve our infrastructure. What’s more, the clock is ticking on the fund’s solvency. Without raising this tax, the fund will run out of money as soon as 2020. Though Congress has come up with patches to replenish the fund in recent years, there have been no long-term fixes. The reason, yet again, is politics.
While Congress refuses to act, some states have taken the plunge. Since 2013, 24 states have raised their gas tax, and no politician has been thrown out of office as a result. In fact, some very conservative states, like Utah, Wyoming and Iowa have raised the gas tax already, showing that politicians are willing to make the commitment for infrastructure.
There are other financing options that we must enact as well. We need a national infrastructure bank that can leverage investment from the private sector, and we must remove the impediments on a state’s ability to toll. According to Center for Transportation Excellence, 71 percent of the referenda proposed between 2000 and 2015 that dealt with transportation projects have passed — even though some called for increasing taxes or tolling.
Infrastructure means economic development, economic opportunities and jobs for our friends and neighbors. Mayors and governors have made the tough decisions, and their cities and states have grown stronger for it. This is the hour for the Trump administration and Congress to work together and come up with a pot of money big enough to improve public transit, reduce traffic, and finally ease commutes for millions of Americans.
Ray LaHood is a former U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the current co-chair of the bipartisan advocacy group Building America’s Future.