How politics are getting in the way of better roads and bridges

How politics are getting in the way of better roads and bridges
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It’s the problem that no one has been able to solve.

For years, Washington policymakers have widely agreed that the nation is facing an infrastructure crisis, with dangerously congested roads and deficient bridges threatening public safety and trade. 

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Time and again, lawmakers in both parties have expressed consensus that something should be done.

Yet, congressional attempts to revitalize the country’s transportation infrastructure — which now ranks 11th in the world after slipping from No. 1, according to the World Economic Forum — have gone nowhere. 

Members of Congress, local legislators, former Cabinet members and experts alike say the impasse largely boils down to one thing. 

“It’s politics,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Funding shortfalls ahead

By 2025, the price of maintaining and updating the country’s infrastructure will total $3.3 trillion, but planned investments are only $1.8 trillion, leaving a $1.4 trillion gap. 

That shortfall is projected to grow to $5.1 trillion by 2040 if spending continues on the current trajectory, according to the latest report from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

President Obama, speaking at a news conference earlier this month, blamed the nation’s infrastructure woes on Republicans who have “been resistant to really taking on this problem in a serious way, and the reason is because of an ideology that says government spending is necessarily bad."

The president in 2009 touted “shovel-ready” transportation projects as the backbone of his economic stimulus package. But some lawmakers in Obama’s own party have complained that the over $800 billion stimulus law only devoted $105 billion to infrastructure, with $48 billion going toward transportation, partly in the form of competitive grants.

Other Democrats criticized how long it took for some of the stimulus projects to begin.

“It put a pathetic morsel of money into infrastructure, yet the president went around the country pretending that we were doing some massive rebuilding,” DeFazio said. 

And when both chambers of Congress were actually controlled by Democrats in 2009 and 2010, DeFazio said Obama killed a multiyear surface transportation bill that the lawmaker was writing with the late Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.).

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were generally eager to avoid a vote on increasing the gasoline tax, underscoring just how politically unpopular it is. The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, forcing lawmakers to find other sources of funding. 

“Politicians don’t want to raise the gas tax, because they are afraid they will get thrown out of office,” said former Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We have to have a big pot of money to get us back to No. 1. And to do that, we have to replenish the Highway Trust Fund”

Politics at the pump

It’s easy to see why lawmakers would be reluctant to raise the gas tax, because consumers pay the cost directly at the pump.

But with the tax unchanged in two decades — and absent other concrete funding alternatives — the Congressional Budget Office predicts that the Highway Trust Fund will be insolvent in the next decade.

The fund, which provides for road construction and other surface transportation projects across the country, is financed by a federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel. 

Congress has sought long-term funding solutions to pull the fund out of its gaping financial hole.

Last year’s five-year surface transportation bill neither raised the gas tax nor came up with a sustainable funding solution. Instead, Congress financed the measure with a series of accounting gimmicks, such as shifting funds from the Federal Reserve. 

But for all the apparent political problems surrounding a fuel tax hike, over a dozen states — including Republican strongholds Georgia, Idaho and Nebraska — have passed or considered legislation to boost their statewide gas taxes. 

“It kind of became campaign folklore that you can’t raise the gas tax,” said Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future, who worked in the White House during the Clinton administration, the last time the tax was raised.

A national gas tax hike is likely to be a tougher sell, even with low gas prices. Taxpayers at the local level may have an easier time envisioning where their state or city tax increase is going when they can physically see a bridge or highway being built.

“Once you’re talking about really large projects around the country and there’s something that needs to go through Congress, it kind of gets lost in all the arguments,” Hale said.

Other speed bumps

Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, says he opposes fuel tax increases because evolving vehicle technology would eventually make them unsustainable. 

But coming up with a suitable, long-term funding solution for transportation projects is difficult when voters have little trust in Washington’s spending, he said. 

“There is very little faith that money that Washington uses goes to the right thing,” Diaz-Balart said. “The infamous phrase of ‘shovel-ready’ sounded good, but it wasn’t true. There’s a lot of cynicism as to whether the federal government is capable of delivering on things it says it needs to do.” 

The ban on earmarks has also complicated Congress’s ability to deliver on local transportation projects. 

“Earmarks allowed them to be courageous,” said former Gov. John Engler (R-Mich.), president of the Business Roundtable. “Some don’t need that courage, some do.” 

Transportation advocates also in constant competition with other pressing issues in defense, healthcare and education, making it hard to grasp a slice of the funding pie. 

But with nearly everyone using the nation’s infrastructure on a daily basis, it’s certainly a campaign message that can be relatable.

“It seems difficult that it would ever be someone’s first issue that they would vote on,” said Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives for ASCE. “But most voters have an infrastructure story, whether it’s the time that the normal commute takes three times longer or a water main breaks nearby.”