Issues & AdvocacyFederal
Congress Temporarily Addresses America’s Infrastructure Woes
By Andrew Goldberg, Assoc. AIA, Managing Director, Government Relations & Outreach
Just before hitting the road for its August recess, Congress voted to prevent the country from going off a “highway cliff” – but failed to take bolder steps to fix the nation’s sagging infrastructure.
Congress approved a bill to stabilize the federal Highway Trust Fund, which provides monies to states for a range of road and transit projects, but which is rapidly running dry. The bill shifts $10.8 billion into the Trust Fund, enough to keep projects running until next May.
The Fund gets its money mainly through the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax. But the tax has not been adjusted since 1993, and with increased fuel efficiency lowering tax receipts, the Fund has not kept up with demand. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation has said the Fund would be depleted by the end of July without Congressional action.
Although the bill keeps projects running for the short term, long-term plans for financing infrastructure are still stuck in neutral. Few policymakers dispute that crumbling infrastructure and rising congestion hurt U.S. competitiveness, increase greenhouse gas emissions, and – as any frazzled commuter can attest – damage quality of life. But paying for improved infrastructure is easier said than done. There is little political appetite for raising the gas tax; and proposals to tax drivers based on vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, raise privacy concerns.
One proposed garnering some interest is a national infrastructure bank to lend money to states for financing projects. For instance, Rep. John Delaney (D-MD), has introduced bipartisan legislation, the Partnership to Build America Act (H.R. 2084), that would create a fund that lends money to state and local governments to finance infrastructure projects. The bill would raise $50 billion for the fund by allowing U.S. corporations to repatriate some of their overseas earnings tax-free in exchange for purchasing bonds. Despite bipartisan support, prospects for passage of this or other proposals are almost non-existent this year.
In the meantime, the AIA and its allies in the design and construction industry continue to make the case that good design will ensure that limited infrastructure dollars go farther. The current federal transportation program, known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, made improvements to federal transportation policy that help communities plan better transportation networks, including provisions that enhance public participation in the planning process and promote transit-oriented development.
These changes reflect findings in a 2008 study by the AIA and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies, Moving Communities Forward, which showed how well-designed transportation projects can bring multiple enhancements to communities in terms of economic development, health and the environment, and public safety.
MAP-21 expires at the end of September. Although the bill that patches the trust fund also extends MAP-21 through next May, it is clear that the next Congress will need to find longer-term solutions to the nation’s infrastructure woes. After all, people who sit in traffic also vote.
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