Paying the price for 20 years of duct-taping our infrastructure

With much of the focus on the government shutdown and its potential impact on the economy, a critical cost of congressional polarization and paralysis has been overshadowed: Our nation is literally falling apart.

Leaders in Congress received a roll of duct tape from the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) last week, highlighting lawmakers’ failed approach to taking care of our transportation infrastructure. It’s been two decades since Congress has made any significant progress on transportation infrastructure investment, last adjusting the gas tax by just 4.3 cents per gallon in 1993. That’s two decades of continual neglect and decline, and that duct-tape approach now threatens economic growth and even lives.

ADVERTISEMENT
What this means in real life is that the next time you’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, you have more reason than ever to worry about that bridge you’re on being among the 25 that collapse every year, according to federal records. One in 4 bridges are deficient or obsolete, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, bridges like the I-5 bridge that collapsed in Washington state this year or like the I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis.

In recent testimony before Congress, I called for an end to trying to duct tape our way out of this crisis and for a strong federal role. According to the civil engineers, our roadways need more than $120 billion more a year, plus another $8 billion to cover the budget shortfall for our bridges. Cities, counties and private investors cannot meet these needs alone. Even if we are fortunate enough to avoid being the victim of a collapse this year, chances are that next bridge we drive over, at an average age of 45 years old, is dangerously approaching its typical lifespan of 50 years.

Our nation’s Highway Trust Fund, the key source for transportation investments, is on the brink of insolvency. Unlike most other financing mechanisms, Congress never adjusted it to inflation. As a result, revenue from the gas tax is no longer able to keep pace with the rising costs of construction materials, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Some of the revenue falloff also comes from the increased use of fuel-efficient cars, which use less gas, but unfortunately not fewer roads.

Congress should consider options such as indexing or increasing the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax. After all, we’re already paying for it. The average motorist wastes $324 a year on fuel and repairs due to the deterioration of our roadways. Had the tax been indexed back in 1993, we could have raised $215 billion in investment resources. That alone would not solve our crisis, but it may very well have prevented bridge collapses and saved lives.

For some time now, LIUNA — along with a broad array of allies including business associations, community groups and transit proponents — has been pushing for a bigger discussion and bolder vision of how our nation invests in critical infrastructure. We’ve erected billboards warning of approaching deficient bridges, aired radio ads comparing our bridge crossings to a dangerous game of Russian roulette and now our “Emergency Bridge Repair Team” is once again delivering duct tape to members of Congress.
The government shutdown sure makes for a blockbuster political drama. But more damaging is the lack of political will and common sense that year after year has blocked additional pennies from flowing into our nation’s transportation systems.

With the current authorization for the Highway Trust Fund set to expire in a year, there must be a thoughtful discussion. A long-term, serious investment in our nation’s transportation system will help create jobs for tens of thousands of construction workers who can build the infrastructure to reverse the decline.

How could such a discussion take place when we have more gridlock in Congress than we do on our roads and bridges?

History can reassure us. Revenue to keep our country from falling apart has historically been authorized by both parties. In fact, President Ronald Reagan advocated for and won a gas tax increase to care for our nation’s highways, which were originally built and funded by President Dwight Eisenhower.

Every circus has to end. When this one does, let’s hope Congress and the White House can get down to taking care of the very basics of our nation and once again build America.

O’Sullivan is general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, representing a half-million men and women predominantly in the construction industry.