From the Council on Foreign Relations:
By: Scott Thomasson
Despite the pressing infrastructure investment needs of the United States, federal infrastructure policy is paralyzed by partisan wrangling over massive infrastructure bills that fail to move through Congress. Federal policymakers should think beyond these bills alone and focus on two politically viable approaches. First, Congress should give states flexibility to pursue alternative financing sources—public-private partnerships (PPPs), tolling and user fees, and low cost borrowing through innovative credit and bond programs. Second, Congress and President Barack Obama should improve federal financing programs and streamline regulatory approvals to move billions of dollars for planned investments into construction. Both recommendations can be accomplished, either with modest legislation that can bypass the partisan gridlock slowing bigger bills or through presidential action, without the need for congressional approval.
The United States has huge unpaid bills coming due for its infrastructure. A generation of investments in world-class infrastructure in the mid-twentieth century is now reaching the end of its useful life. Cost estimates for modernizing run as high as $2.3 trillion or more over the next decade for transportation, energy, and water infrastructure. Yet public infrastructure investment, at 2.4 percent of GDP, is half what it was fifty years ago. Congress has done little to address this growing crisis. Ideally, it would pass comprehensive bills to guide strategic, longterm investments. The surface transportation bill, known as the highway bill, is a notable example of such comprehensive legislation. It is the largest source of federal infrastructure spending, allocating hundreds of billions of dollars over several years for highways, rapid transit, and rail. But the most recent six-year highway bill expired in 2009, and Congress has been unable to agree on a new multiyear bill since then. The Senate passed a new bill in March 2012 that provides only two years of funding and efforts in the House to pass a longer-term bill have nearly collapsed. The continuing impasse forced Congress to pass its ninth temporary extension of the old law at the end of March 2012, this time for ninety days. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced in February that he does not expect a bill to pass before the 2012 election, a view many experts share.
Even if Congress passes a new highway bill, the country’s infrastructure debacle is hardly resolved. Transportation is only one part of the problem, and the pending bills do not even raise investment in this sector from previous, insufficient levels. Nor do they address the biggest long-term problem for transportation—inadequate funding from the Highway Trust Fund. Since the mid-1950s, federal gas tax revenues have been deposited into the Highway Trust Fund and then allocated to states for transportation improvements. But the gas tax is not tied to inflation and has not been raised since 1993. At current spending and revenue levels, the trust fund will be insolvent within two years. Raising the gas tax would alleviate the funding problem, but both parties consider that and other new taxes to be political nonstarters.
Scott Thomasson is president of NewBuild Strategies LLC, an energy and infrastructure consulting firm in Washington, DC. He most recently served as a policy director at a nonprofit think tank and has testified before Congress about current proposals for financing infrastructure.
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