As Congress considers infrastructure, don’t forget rural America
For the first time in years, “infrastructure week” is no longer a punchline. As the only senator who sits on the three Senate committees with transportation jurisdiction — the transportation trifecta — I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues to bring America’s transportation infrastructure into the 21st Century.
Congress plays a vital role in ensuring continued investments in our national infrastructure — it’s a role mandated by the U.S. Constitution for mail distribution. We have sadly neglected our responsibility, however, as other political efforts took precedent the past few decades. This neglect shows: In their 2021 infrastructure report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our roads and transit systems ‘D’ ratings. The time to act is very clearly now.
However, the way we act is equally important to how fast. Transportation and infrastructure must not become a political football like health care. We can create a bipartisan transportation package, like Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) crafted in 2019, that will unite Americans nationally around a much-needed overhaul. Most importantly, we can address these challenges through the normal Senate channels of committee hearings and markups. Any Democrat attempt to go it alone puts the needs of millions of rural Americans, and the local economies they drive, at risk.
Within an overhaul, we must remember the needs of every American — and this includes the many small towns and rural communities in states like Wyoming. While I know some of my colleagues represent urban areas that benefit from transit services, it is ultimately the roads and bridges across the country that weave our country together. That is why it is critically important that Congress maintain the current “80/20 split” between highway and transit programs. This division has effectively served our country to date, and in a post-COVID-19 economy is actually more important than ever as transit systems adapt to falling ridership.
Maintaining that split is important for several reasons. First, trucks are the dominant shipping method in the United States, and are projected to easily maintain that position well into the future. By weight, in 2018 trucking outpaced all other forms of transportation by over two to one, and outpaced rail by nearly eight times. That means cities are benefitting from our highway system as much as anyone. Second, the funding backlog for highways is over four times that of transit. Finally, in a post-COVID-19 world, urban transportation needs will radically change. According to one analysis, one in four Americans will work remotely in 2021, and by 2025 over 36 million Americans will work remotely. That’s an 87 percent increase over pre-pandemic levels. These figures show that sustained, long-term investments in our highways will reap benefits for all Americans, not just those in urban areas.
Congress must also resist the temptation to move toward grant-based funding programs and away from a “formula focused” funding mechanism. In theory, this might sound more democratic, allowing improvement proposals to compete against each other. While I understand the desire to set up new, and expand upon existing, discretionary grant programs, rural states like Wyoming are often placed at a disadvantage during the grant selection process due to comparatively limited resources. The fairest system is the formula focused system, and at least 90 percent of overall highway funds should continue to come from formula funds.
Finally, urban areas have different regulatory needs than rural areas. A one-size-fits-all approach to regulation rarely leaves everyone satisfied. Rural areas don’t have the congestion issues that other parts of the country face. Instead, highways connect rural population centers over a large geographic area. Requiring new performance metrics for rural communities on things like congestion would simply waste taxpayer funds. We don’t need more federal regulations. Often, we simply need to repave our roads.
The world is changing. Our transportation systems must be updated in order to adapt to those changes. However, these updates must support all swaths of America, and must be bipartisan. There is a strong desire to work across the aisle on our transportation infrastructure. I hope we all keep these facts in mind as we look to make 2021 our infrastructure year.
Cynthia Lummis, the junior senator from Wyoming, is the only U.S. senator sitting on the three committees with transportation jurisdiction, the Committee on Environment and Public Works, the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.
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