Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 23, 24 or 25
Meanwhile, gas prices are at their lowest since 2009 – about $2.17 per gallon, more than $1.10 cheaper than a year ago, according to gasbuddy.com. That’s led groups that often disagree to all call for a hike in the federal gas tax to meet infrastructure needs.
“Now is the best time to eliminate the funding shortfalls that have plagued the federal transportation fund for years with an increase in the gas tax,” said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). “Every penny added to the gas tax would generate approximately $1.5 billion for transportation infrastructure. A few additional pennies on the gas tax would have a minimal impact on the average car owner.”
An American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) report issued in 2013, "America’s Infrastructure," said the country’s infrastructure should be given a grade of D+ – barely sufficient. Almost one-third of the roads are in poor or mediocre shape, and more than 40 percent of urban highways are congested, said U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“One of nine bridges is structurally deficient, and nearly a quarter are functionally obsolete,” Sanders said. “Transit systems face major unfunded repairs. Our nation’s rail network is largely antiquated, even though our energy-efficient railroads move more freight than ever and Amtrak’s ridership has never been higher.”
The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) estimates more than $20 billion annually is needed to catch up with maintenance or replacement of bridges, but the federal government is spending about $13 billion, said Sanders, who added that FHA says another $170 billion is needed to improve federal highways.
“The United States now spends just 2.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product on infrastructure, less than at any point in the last 20 years,” Sanders said. “To get our infrastructure to a state of good repair by 2020, the American Society of Civil Engineers says we must invest $1.6 trillion more than what we now spend.”
The situation is far different than past support, he added.
“For most of our history, the United States proudly led the world in building innovative infrastructure, from a network of canals, to the transcontinental railroad, to the Interstate highway system,” Sanders said. “We launched an ambitious rural electrification program, massive flood-control projects and more.
“For many years we have underfunded the maintenance of our nation’s physical infrastructure,” Sanders continued. “That has to change. It is time to rebuild America.”
Now, with deteriorating infrastructure and low gas prices, the ATU has joined a growing call by interests as different as the Laborers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asking for an increase in the gas tax to rebuild the nation’s transportation system and support public transit.
Raising the gas tax – which hasn’t increased since 1993 – would “provide operational support for our nation’s cash-strapped public transit agencies that have been forced to cut service and raise fares despite more riders crowding their transit systems,” ATU’s Hanley said.
As for roads, the U.S. Highway Trust Fund last summer was funded through this May by a previous Congress that approved the stopgap measure. But it’s unclear what a generally anti-tax Republican Congress will do given support for the idea not just from unions but the National Association of Manufacturers.
Also, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget recently released a paper, "Trust or Bust: Fixing the Federal Highway Fund," exploring ways to close the fund’s deficit. Congress could decide to permanently funnel more money to highway investment and less to other areas, such as the Department of Defense (which receives 27 cents of every federal tax dollar), it suggests, or the gas tax could go up.
The Highway Trust Fund shortfall was caused by better fuel efficiency, fewer miles driven, and a gas tax that hasn’t changed in 23 years. It’s time, Hanley said.
“This ‘perfect storm’ of record public transit ridership, diminishing funding, increased fares, and cut service has reduced many Americans’ access to good jobs, and slowed the pace of economic development,” he said. “The question America must ask is not ‘Can we afford to increase the gas tax?’ but rather, ‘How can we afford not to?’ ”
[PICTURED: Chart from the American Society of Civil Engineers.]