Conventional wisdom says that infrastructure is an area where leaders in Washington can come together and find common ground. Yet our nation’s roads and bridges continue to deteriorate because leaders have been unable to agree on funding a robust infrastructure package. However, experts predict that infrastructure may be one of the things a Biden-led White House and a Republican Senate can agree upon, and industry specialists believe that 2021 may finally be a good year for infrastructure legislation.
With the current one-year extension of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, set to expire in September 2021, Congress will need to get to work on delivering a long-term, robust surface transportation bill and a permanent fix for the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which finances most federal spending for highways and mass transit.
“Republicans and Democrats have said for years that there’s no such thing as a Republican road or Democratic bridge,” says Dave Bauer, president of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA). “One way or another, the Congress that begins in 2021 will have to deal with a surface reauthorization bill.” The hope is that Congress can come together to find a long-term funding mechanism that will permanently shore up the HTF and provide states with funding security for years to come – and not simply another extension.
James Burnley, former Secretary of Transportation during the Reagan administration, says another one-year extension of the FAST Act is not the solution to our nation’s infrastructure woes. “When it comes to a multi-year authorization bill, these short-term extensions simply don’t get the job done,” he cautions.
In terms of funding a long-term infrastructure plan, many believe there will need to be a combination of revenue streams to provide sustainable funding. Currently revenues for the trust fund primarily come from federal taxes on gasoline and diesel – but that federal fuel tax has not been raised since 1993.
Burnley explained that “because the HTF is now so far underwater, Congress will need to promote a new fundraising plan, whether it’s raising fuel taxes or a whole new approach, like a vehicle miles traveled tax or a combination thereof to pay for programs going to surface transportation.”
Despite the perceived unpopularity of fuel taxes, Bauer says ARTBA has been “supporting gas tax increases as long as we’ve been working on this.” “All of our partners have demonstrated the political viability of raising fuel taxes at the state level,” he explained.
State leaders who impose gas tax increases to fund failing infrastructure are continually reelected once voters realize the need for – and benefits of – such funding. California’s Senate Bill 1, passed in 2017, is one example of a state gas tax increase aimed at raising much-needed revenues to fund infrastructure. SB 1 is investing $5.4 billion annually over the next decade to fix California’s transportation system and repair its crumbling roads, bridges and highways.
As for a national solution, Bauer says ARTBA remains focused on the outcome of “getting a robust reauthorization bill at a time our country desperately needs it.”