Of all the ill-advised, misguided nonsense Congress peddles on a daily basis, I cannot identify any more foolish than their steadfast refusal to properly fund America’s infrastructure and its maintenance. Yeah, I get it — there is nothing sexy about bridge or tunnel maintenance. But that is how well-functioning societies operate.
If you build it, you must also maintain it.
The Highway Trust Fund gets more than 75% of its money from federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuels. The fund was created in 1956, and the gas tax rose modestly (close to inflation) for ~four decades. The gasoline tax has funded the regular upkeep on our roads, bridges, and tunnels rather effectively — until 1993.
That was when the gas tax stopped keeping pace with price increases. And so even modest inflation over those nearly 30 years has worn away the Trust Fund’s ability to do pay for all of the proper maintenance our transport system requires. The Trust has been underfunded and continues to be that way thanks to that 1993 freeze on gasoline taxes. Back in 1992, it was 18.4 cents a gallon, or about 9.9 cents in 2021 dollars.
A simple increase of a quarter (25 cents) per gallon funds the highway trust fund for at least a decade; a dime buys us a few years. The smartest thing to do would be to put a COLA on the gas tax and let it rise with CPI indexed to inflation.
The $973 billion infrastructure deal will go a long way, but where it falls short is the ongoing regular maintenance of existing transportation infrastructure. Even worse, you can expect the latest electric vehicles (EVs) with their heavy batteries, to create even more damage to our roads.
It is shocking that any political party would be against having people pay for their usage of public roads, either as drivers, or consumers of goods that were shipped over them. Usually, about now I start complaining about Republican intransigence and what a weenie Grover Norquist is and why he is to blame for your awful roads. This time, it is a bipartisan error: In addition to Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) opposing any increase, there is also President Biden and Senator Sanders who oppose that solution.
I understand some consider this a regressive tax; it is a small cost relative to the good it does. It is also much cheaper than repairing flat tires and broken axles (for those who drive) or the delays of poorly maintained busses and trains for those who take mass transit.
President Dwight Eisenhower (a Republican), made the case for the interstate highway system. Both parties used to support Infrastructure as it helped both individuals and businesses. Indeed, the interstate highway system became a government-funded platform that the private sector built on top of, helping to move goods and increase the mobility of everyone. Who could oppose providing the basic maintenance it requires?
Apparently, both parties.
BusinessWeek: It’s Time to Go Big (April 30, 2020)
100-Year Bonds Can Fund Big Infrastructure Projects (September 3, 2019)
Long Overdue: Raise the Gas Tax! (March 29, 2019)
Congress Funds Infrastructure the Dumbest Way Possible (December 2, 2015)