After factoring in economic-recovery funds, there's still a $550 billion gap between what we've got and what we'll need over the next five years to repair - much less improve - our roads and bridges.
As much as taxpayers might like it to be, maintaining these assets isn't free. We can't allow the hullabaloo surrounding the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to obscure this reality. There's a very real danger that the unexpected largesse will lead the public and our elected officials to continue putting off the day of reckoning.
With the federal surface-transportation bill up for reauthorization, we've got our hands full determining how best to collect and distribute monies. We can tax fuel, mileage, and/or access, and we can call it a "fee" or a "toll;" but whatever we label it and however we spin it the legislation must deliver better mechanisms for raising money that can be used at the local level for local solutions.
I say "we" because it's easy to forget that the men and women hammering out the details on the next surface-transportation bill are beholden to us. We send them to Washington to advocate on our behalf because we can't be there ourselves. Their actions reflect our desires. In 1956, we wanted an interstate highway system, so we decided to tax our gasoline and diesel purchases. We authorized $25 billion - $195 billion in today's dollars - to build 41,000 miles over 20 years, and it worked. For awhile.
Like us, roads and bridges deteriorate over time. Baby Boomers spend billions to maintain their youthful visage, but they protest when asked to pay a few pennies more for the infrastructure that made the nation great. I think of it as the curse of the developed nation.
Gasoline consumption is down because Americans are driving less, and they're driving more fuel-efficient cars. We'll probably have to bail out the Highway Trust Fund this year like we did last year. The White House and U.S. DOT are at odds about raising the federal gas tax, and in this economy I'm not sure many private investors are looking or even able to raise money for a public-private infrastructure project.
So what do think is the most reasonable way to ensure long-term funding?