America’s infrastructure needs: Too big to solve?

A gas tax of one cent was first implemented by President Herbert Hoover in 1932 as a way to close the federal budget deficit. It would raise “$124.9 million … in the fiscal year 1933, which represented 7.7 percent of the total Internal Revenue collection of $1.620 billion from all sources,” according to research by Tom Murse in ThoughtCo.

In 1940, the tax was raised to build U.S. defense, and in 1951 it was increased again to help pay for the Korean War. Between 1959 and 1983, it stood at 4 cents per gallon to fund the building of the interstate highway system. President Reagan would increase the tax by 125 percent in 1986 to pay for Superfund and transit, and President Clinton raised the tax to 18.4 cents to reduce the budget deficit in 1993 — none of which went to fund highways and bridges. The tax has not been increased since.

The lesson is clear: Funding for roads and bridges historically has not been about roads and bridges. President Biden appears to be following this tradition. His $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan targets only about 6 percent to fixing our highway and bridge infrastructure, while “dedicated” funds in the Highway Trust Fund, funded by the federal gas tax, will not change.

The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card on the state of infrastructure in the United States each year. This year, our overall grade is C-minus. Bridges got a rating of C: “Currently, 42 percent of all bridges are at least 50 years old, and 46,154, or 7.5 percent of the nation’s bridges, are considered structurally deficient, meaning they are in ‘poor’ condition.” The report goes on to warn: “It will take until 2071 to make all of the repairs that are currently necessary, and the additional deterioration over the next 50 years will become overwhelming.”

Our roads were given a grade of D on the report card, which notes that “58.1 percent of our public roadways are in poor, fair or mediocre condition.” The report counsels: “The U.S. has been underfunding its roadway maintenance for years, resulting in a $786 billion backlog of road and bridge capital needs.” 

The federal government has mostly ignored transportation infrastructure for close to three decades. In fact, says the report, “(The) Federal Highway Trust Fund went bankrupt in September 2008 and has required over $140 billion in bailouts from other funds since then.”

States have tried to fill the void with revenue increases. Pennsylvania, for example, enacted the highest gas tax in the nation in 2013 when it passed Act 89. The tax is now — although language hides the fact it is a gas tax — 55.22 cents per gallon. It promised to generate $2.4 billion in additional revenue per year. The problem is, this constitutionally guaranteed revenue source for roads and bridges is being decimated by payments to the Pennsylvania State Police. 

A report from Pennsylvania’s Auditor General in 2019 found that “transfers from the Motor License Fund to the state police have totaled more than $4.25 billion since the 2012-13 fiscal year.” The result is, despite having the highest gas tax in the United States, Pennsylvania is not solving its infrastructure issues. It has simply bent the curve to buy more time.

Act 89 is likely the last gas tax that will be passed in Pennsylvania. When you are the highest in the nation it is hard to justify going higher, so the fight now focuses on getting state police out of their budget. 

Former President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed on the coronavirus vaccine provided one valuable lesson to America about government and industry: Bureaucracy is the enemy of efficiency. Public investment, coupled with lower regulation and control, can achieve remarkable results very quickly.

President Biden’s infrastructure bill is built on a foundation of Green New Deal goals. As a result, Biden is handcuffed in streamlining or reforming costly, inefficient and redundant regulations that cost time and soak up limited resources. The Mercury News reported that in 1936, building a bridge required one agency approval, two years in design and 3.6 years to build, but by 2013 you would have to work with 13 agencies, five years in design and 11 years to build. Columnist Jonah Goldberg observed: “It took 410 days to build the Empire State Building; four years to erect the Golden Gate Bridge. The Pentagon took two years; the Alaska Highway just nine months.” Today we measure in decades.

Infrastructure is an issue that deserves a clean bill. Biden’s $2 trillion plan will fix a total of “10 most economically significant bridges in the U.S. … and would spend $59 billion more on electric vehicles than on roads and bridges,” according to a USA Today analysis.

The story of transportation infrastructure in America — with the exclusion of President Dwight Eisenhower’s building of the interstate system — is that it has always been about something else.  President Biden’s bill is no different. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will argue against increasing corporate taxes, and transportation industry associations will take what they are given.  Both should be pushing for a complete rethinking and funding of the system.

Instead, transportation infrastructure will remain a problem that is too big to solve unless Americans demand solutions from those in charge.

Dennis M. Powell is founder and president of Massey Powell in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., which provides strategic communications services to organizations. He was a consultant on Pennsylvania’s Act 89 and has been involved in more than 300 political campaigns doing strategy, messaging, polling and fundraising. Follow him on Twitter @dennismpe.

Tags Biden infrastructure plan Donald Trump Fuel tax Highway Trust Fund Joe Biden roads and bridges

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