Written by Patrick Jones
You can’t pick up a newspaper, read an article online, listen to the radio or turn on the TV without hearing a story about our crumbling infrastructure. America’s highways have been falling behind for decades and it’s high time we did something about it.
Over the last couple of years, a new group of players has burst onto the scene with the local knowledge and sense of urgency to break the financial deadlock behind our nation’s infrastructure crisis. With Congress still considering how to pay for a possible short-term or long-term highway transportation funding bill, it’s becoming ever clearer that regional and state governments hold the key to a tough problem that pits the value we attach to mobility against lingering resistance to paying for the services we need.
No Free Roads
If you think about it, there’s no controversy to the statement that there are no free roads. Infrastructure works as it’s supposed to when it’s new, but everything breaks down with use. We expect to pay for electricity, water, cell phone, cable service, etc. And no one would buy a house and expect to stop paying for repairs once they have paid off the mortgage.
Somehow, too many of our fellow citizens have absorbed the myth that once a road’s construction costs are covered, that road is paid for forever. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Asphalt and metal degrade over time, as surely as the shingles on your roof—and as every homeowner knows, postponing minor repairs means higher costs later on.
The myth has been costly to long-distance truckers, weekday commuters, and anyone who would like to depend on safe, reliable, predictable roads. The latest data from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute showed that congestion cost America’s drivers $121 billion and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel in 2011. And congestion is a multi-million-dollar headache for shippers like UPS.
“If every one of our drivers sits in traffic for five minutes every day, that costs our company $105 million a year,” Vice President, Public Affairs Pat Thomas told IBTTA’s Summit on Legislation, Policy & Infrastructure Finance last year.
Yet the federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993 and it has lost more than one third of its purchasing power since then. With the Highway Trust Fund hovering near bankruptcy, Congress has had trouble finding a pathway to new sustainable revenue.
States to the Rescue
The federal gas tax is a fundamentally important funding tool, and a broad swath of the transportation community supports increasing it, as does IBTTA. But the greatest momentum toward practical, lasting solutions is coming from the states, at least two-dozen of which have increased their gas taxes in the last two years. “Of all those politicians in state legislatures who voted to increase the gas tax prior to the 2014 election, 98% of them were re-elected,” highway funding champion Rep. Earl Blumenauer (OR-3) told our Transportation Finance and Road User Charging Conference in April.
Many state legislators are looking at a toolbox of funding and financing options to rescue their roads, and their constituents are responding well. Drivers in 34 states logged 5.7 billion trips on toll roads in 2014, a 14% increase in four years, and the 37 million electronic tolling accounts across the country represent a 20% increase in five years.
Then there’s Oregon, which introduced America’s first gas tax. On July 1, 2015, Oregon surged into the lead on another promising approach to user financing, launching the nation’s first full-scale Road Usage Charging program.
Diversity is in the Air
The takeaway from all of this activity: It will take a diverse mix of funding options to get our highway system back on track.
That reality is reflected in the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act, the bipartisan surface transportation reauthorization legislation that the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee approved in late June.
Section 1021 of the Act would allow states to consider the use of tolls for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Interstate System in their respective states. In addition, this section streamlines the process for approval and implementation of the pilot program – allowing states to move forward once they have met the requirements and are ready to do so. With limited federal revenues available to support our nation’s infrastructure, it only makes sense to give states the ability to choose the best way to pay for the highway work they so desperately need.
It’s exciting to think that our highways might be on the cusp of a solution after a couple of decades of gridlock (of both kinds). But when drivers’ front-line experience comes together with the bipartisan spirit of the DRIVE Act, just about anything could be possible.
Patrick Jones is Executive Director & CEO, International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA)