While all these ideas have been discussed in the three years since the last transportation bill expired, none made it into the legislation Congress approved last week.
“That’s why it’s taken three years to pass a bill,” Horsley said. “No one has the courage to raise taxes.”
In the absence of a solution from Washington, several states have raised their own gasoline taxes over the past decade.
Minnesota is raising its tax by 8.5 cents a gallon in increments after the fatal Interstate 35 West bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007. Republican then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the tax increase, but state lawmakers overrode him.
“It took a crisis to move the Legislature to do what it did,” Horsley said.
A 6-cent-a-gallon increase took effect in Oregon last year. Washington state voters approved a 5-cent-a gallon increase in 2003, and the Legislature raised the tax again by 9.5 cents over four years starting in 2005.
Part of a 1-cent state sales tax increase in Kansas will go toward transportation projects, and neighboring Missouri has discussed a similar measure.
Other states are trying tolls and public-private partnerships to finance road construction and maintenance. Indiana leased its toll road to a private company for 75 years, and Pennsylvania considered a similar arrangement for its famous turnpike. Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia are moving toward collecting tolls on major portions of free interstate highways in order to add lanes and rebuild interchanges.
California and Georgia are trying another approach, letting voters decide whether they want to pay for local highway and transit projects.
Raising taxes may not be universally popular, but transportation spending is. Lawmakers can point to new highways as tangible evidence that they’re doing something for the people they represent.
But Deron Lovaas, the federal transportation policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group based in New York, said the era of “gold-plated” infrastructure projects was over.
“If you have scarce federal dollars and you need to make smart investments, you need to focus on repairing and maintaining existing infrastructure before you build anything new,” he said.
Lovaas said the federal Department of Transportation should apply more scrutiny to projects that receive federal funds. According to the Carnegie Endowment report from last year, most federally funded highway projects get little or no federal oversight.
Although lawmakers have moved away from the costly special-interest earmarks that bloated past transportation bills – the 2005 legislation contained nearly 6,300 of them – the nation’s roads and bridges need to be rebuilt or replaced, and Lovaas said that was where the money should go.
Lovaas floated the idea of a bipartisan commission to examine transportation projects across the country and evaluate whether they’re really needed.
“This is a particularly good time for us to revisit our policy on infrastructure,” he said.