Failure to pass long-term highway bill could bring economy to a halt

Last week, President Obama stood before Congress and said “first-class jobs gravitate to first-class infrastructure.” Infrastructure’s relationship in building a greater economy could not have been made any clearer.

Our infrastructure is how we get our kids to school, how we come to work and how businesses move their products. Yet, despite this obvious connection, congressional inaction continues to hurt American families and businesses every day we fail to invest in our nation’s foundation.

2014 is a critical year for our country’s infrastructure. As the president alluded in his State of the Union, there is an issue in Washington that, if unaddressed, could bring the American economy to a halt: the expiration of the federal transportation bill and the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund.

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The Highway Trust Fund spends more than $48 billion annually to repair and modernize roads, bridges and transit systems in every state across the country. This revenue comes from a motor fuels user fee that has not been raised since 1993. Simply, we are trying to fund a 2014 transportation system on 1993 dollars. Given this untenable formula, when the fund finally becomes insolvent, estimated at the end of the year, highway and transit programs will sustain a 92 percent cut if Congress fails to act.

In my home state of New Jersey, more than one third of all of our capital outlays come from the Highway Trust Fund. Imagine the economic consequences of your state ceasing 35 percent of its construction projects and road repairs.

If Congress is unable to pass a new surface transportation bill this year and solve the revenue issue, federal funding for transportation infrastructure will once again be put in jeopardy, leading to greater uncertainty. This will throw many planned road and bridge projects into disarray.

Infrastructure requires sustainable funding and long-term planning to be successful. You cannot plan and build a new bridge if you are unsure whether the funding will run out by the time you are halfway done.

Funding is only part of the problem. Without this legislation, we will lose a huge opportunity to build on reforms that speed up project timetables and enhance performance measures that were successfully adopted in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. While some cities and states are tackling deficient bridges and adding transit lines, we still face a growing backlog of projects due to years of underinvestment in infrastructure.

Last spring, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which awarded our nation’s infrastructure a GPA of D+. A grade of D+ is not a something any of us would be proud to bring home to our parents.

The truth is that American families and businesses are already paying for our inadequate infrastructure. The more time we sit in traffic, the more we spend on gas. The longer it takes a package to get across the country, the higher the price. The ASCE estimates that deficient, unreliable transportation infrastructure will cost the average American family more than $1,000 each year by 2020.

Businesses will pay a price, too. Between now and 2020, we’ll spend an additional $430 billion for transportation and productivity will go down as we struggle to compete in a global economy.

For too long we have been told that we do not have the resources, or that funding is not available to fix our ailing infrastructure systems. 2014 will be a year of stark choices for Congress. Will we choose to make a D+ worse by not addressing America’s $1.6 trillion infrastructure gap? Or, will Congress finally commit to the longer-term, sustainable funding mechanisms that our ailing roads, bridges and transit systems so desperately need?

In his State of the Union speech, Obama called for 2014 to be a “year of action.” Now is the time for new thinking, and what a better way to start 2014 than thinking of how we can raise the grades on America’s infrastructure?

Natale is executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers.