Throughout the history of mankind, people have always faced a great divide and responded by asking themselves, “How do we get there from here?”
Facing thousands of miles of forest, mountains, rivers and even desert separating America’s east coast from the west, pioneers responded first with covered wagons, then with railroads and finally with a system of interstate highways.
One hundred years ago, innovators faced the 50 miles that separated the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the Isthmus of Panama and responded with a canal that would transform global trade.
Fifty years ago, visionaries gazed at the moon in the night sky and again challenged themselves to figure out how we could get there from here. They responded with engineering marvels of space exploration.
Today, we are faced with another divide — one of funding, where policy and political will rather than physical distance and geography separates us.
On July 31, the federal Highway Trust Fund will expire, leaving a funding hole that, on average, amounts to about 45 percent of a state’s transportation funding.
Historically, Congress has authorized transportation funding for six years at a time, recognizing that major infrastructure projects are long-term investments that can’t move forward without reliable funding streams. But, in recent years, Congress has succeeded in passing only two-year band-aid bills, shifting $52 billion from the General Fund to the Highway Trust Fund since 2008 to keep it from going insolvent.
The reason for this chronic shortfall is our nation’s singular reliance on the gas tax to pay for transportation needs, and its failure to keep up. The gas tax is not indexed to rise with inflation and our leaders have not summoned the political resolve to raise the tax in more than 20 years. And that’s just compounded by the growth in more fuel-efficient vehicles and those that don’t require gasoline at all.
Some, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Road & Transportation Builders Association argue for substantial increases in the gas tax.
Others, like the conservative Heritage Action group, promote eliminating the federal gas tax altogether and letting states fund 100 percent of their transportation needs.
Clearly, a great divide. Like many divides, the failure to bridge this one is costly.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) grades America’s infrastructure a D+ and estimates that American families and businesses are losing an estimated $101 billion a year in wasted time and fuel.
That same report estimates that driving on roads in need of repair costs Florida motorists $2.5 billion a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs. That’s $181.43 per motorist. ASCE rates 259 Florida bridges as structurally deficient and 1,785 as functionally obsolete. It estimates that Florida schools have $8.9 billion in infrastructure funding needs.
We must reach across political and philosophical divides to find solutions and build a fragile but needed consensus. These solutions are likely to include:
▪ Greater latitude for states and local governments to enter into public-private partnerships to speed infrastructure projects with private funding.
▪ Greater use of toll roads and toll lanes. This means we must defeat misguided efforts to tie decision-makers’ hands, such as a proposed Florida Constitutional amendment to prohibit new toll roads or toll increases without voter approval.
▪ Greater use of transponder technology, such as SunPass, which ensures that drivers pay for roads as they use them.
▪ And a long-term transportation funding bill funded by a continued and increased federal gas tax — at least as a transitory source, possibly paired with incentives to spur more innovative, technology-reliant funding solutions.
Although the Florida Department of Transportation has not yet identified individual projects that might be impacted by a shortfall in Federal funds — largely due to Congressional inaction — the fact that Florida’s transportation budget consists of only 25 percent federal dollars gives our DOT Secretary Jim Boxold about 6 months before currently funded projects would see any funding reductions.
As with other great divides, success comes when we refuse to accept failure as an option. We need our leaders in Washington to find their political determination and apply that kind of resolve to this problem, quickly.
Matt Ubben is president of Floridians for Better Transportation, a statewide transportation advocacy group.