The US needs to overhaul the antiquated way it funds its infrastructure needs
In this time of political division, there is at least one thing Democrats and Republicans in every corner of our country can agree on: our nation’s infrastructure systems – from roadways and bridges, to water systems, public transit, rural broadband, and more – are inadequate and deteriorating.
As two members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee – a Republican and a Democrat – we hear about our nation’s infrastructure shortcomings every day. We, too, are fed up with the status quo.
We’ve reached this point because, over the past 50 years, the federal response to infrastructure needs has been disjointed and Washington-driven. The system is based on an array of funding streams that do not generate adequate and stable funding, and do not allow states and communities flexibility to address their specific and varied needs.
Historically, there have been two core approaches to federal infrastructure investments, each with their own drawbacks and shortcomings: dedicated trust funds and general discretionary spending programs. While some of these methods work well, the majority of them – especially the Highway Trust Fund, which will be insolvent by 2022 – are woefully inadequate and are falling behind growing needs.
It is clear an entirely new approach is needed. For years, Republicans and Democrats haven’t been able to join across the aisle and find a solution that creates a certain and stable revenue source. If we can’t come together around the old ways of funding, we must consider a new way, like discarding the historic approach of “silos” that address segments of infrastructure needs as funds become available. We can move to an approach that ensures all federal, state, and community infrastructure priorities are addressed.
We propose the creation of a federal Infrastructure Investment Fund to replace the old model, while allowing some programs that currently work and will work for the foreseeable future to continue on a narrowly tailored basis.
As anyone who has spent any time in government knows, Washington does not always know best. Some infrastructure projects do fall solely under the federal government’s purview, but for most priorities we believe the best way to tackle infrastructure is at the state and local level. We need to increase our federal investments of grants to state and local governments and ensure that there are meaningful match requirements from the local partners. This Infrastructure Investment Fund would fully support federal highways, waterways, and safety efforts, and then block grant the remaining meaningful funding to states. We know the needs in Michigan and California are markedly different, as are the needs of every other state in our nation. When states and communities have more control, projects better meet the needs of the area.
A major barrier to meaningful action on infrastructure continues to be revenue generation. It’s time to reconsider the way we fund our crumbling roads and bridges. Current sources of revenue have been insufficient, and we need a more reliable method to get our infrastructure back on track. We propose phasing out the contentious existing revenue sources, to the extent possible, that fail to maintain necessary and stable funding, and that fail to preserve existing infrastructure or advance modern infrastructure. We would replace “silo” type taxes like the Federal Gas Tax and Federal Tire Tax with an alternative tax on producers per barrel of oil and 1000 cubic feet of natural gas, and a tax on imports of the same. All revenue would be dedicated to the Infrastructure Investment Fund. This revenue model would spread costs among all parts of our economy and diffuse the impact on any one sector. Further, since much of our oil and natural gas are exported, a large portion of the costs will be paid by foreign markets that buy American resources and benefit from our infrastructure.
The ideas we are presenting are bold. However, we did not come to Congress to take a backseat when we see an opportunity to solve the looming issues facing our nation. For far too long, the federal government has put short-term bandages on our nation’s infrastructure needs—but the time for the status quo is over. By creating a steady long-term infrastructure fund and allowing more local control over infrastructure projects, we may be able to finally fix our nation’s inadequate and failing infrastructure.
Mitchell represents Michigan’s 10th District and Carbajal represents California’s 24th District. Both are members of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.