Congress has a chance this week to provide a strong boost for America’s badly deteriorating infrastructure, but only if a promising solution worked out in the U.S. Senate prevails over a short-sighted fix passed by the House earlier this summer.
The House version provides a five-month extension of current programs, essentially kicking the can down the road, while the Senate version provides $350 billion in transportation programs for six years, although only three of those are paid for. Even so, it is a far better alternative than extending the bill through the end of the year, at which point another short-term fix would be necessary.
Adding urgency to the need to act now is a looming deadline on the federal program. Authority for federal highway aid payments to states will expire Friday at midnight without action. And if Congress doesn't act before then, the balance in the federal Highway Trust Fund is forecast to drop below a minimum cushion of $4 billion that's necessary to keep aid flowing smoothly to states.
“How can you plan, as a researcher or a civil engineer in a transportation department, if you don’t have long-term certainty” about funding, asked Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. Answer: You can’t. States and local communities that rely on the federal funding are facing a dead end if the House and Senate can’t agree.
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It’s no secret by now that the nation’s interstate highway system, a proud legacy from an earlier generation to ours, is badly in need of repair. The latest report from the American Society of Civil Engineers give the system a D. Nearly one-third of the country’s 4 million miles of roads are in poor or mediocre condition, the report found. Further, the Federal Highway Administration estimates it would take $170 billion a year to make a significant improvement in road conditions and performance.
In large measure, Congress has abdicated its leadership role in planning and funding our national infrastructure. Instead of being lured by the open road, American drivers face more potholes, more congestion and fewer safety improvements.
One particularly poignant reminder of the crumbling infrastructure is the deterioration of Memorial Bridge across the Potomac River between Washington, D.C., and Virginia, connecting two of the nation’s iconic landmarks: Arlington National National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial. Earlier this year, two lanes of the iconic bridge were partially shut down for at least six months to repair corrosion damage. Safety experts imposed a 10-ton load limit across the bridge, thus eliminating most bus traffic for an even longer period until the entire structure is rehabilitated.
The Senate bill will provide six years of policy improvements and contract authority for highways and transit programs, thus ending a long cycle of short-term program extensions. It also offers three years of dedicated revenue to the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) so states can deliver more long-term projects and increases funding levels for highway, transit and passenger rail programs.
It won’t fix everything that’s wrong with the nation’s infrastructure. That would require an increase in the gasoline tax that provides a reliable stream of funding and has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. Still, the Senate version represents a vast improvement over the House’s proposed short-term solution and should be approved by lawmakers before they go on their own summer recess starting next week.