National leaders have the opportunity to strengthen our investment in America’s infrastructure system, boosting our economy and sharpening our competitive edge along the way. They’ve already taken a step in the right direction by temporarily replenishing one of the most crucial sources of federal funding, the Highway Trust Fund. But we’ve got a long way to go.
The Highway Trust Fund is the pot of money that’s dedicated to maintaining and modernizing our surface transportation infrastructure. The trouble is that the pot is running dry because the revenues that have traditionally filled it — mostly gas tax receipts — aren’t rolling in the way they used to. People are driving fewer miles and vehicles are more fuel-efficient.
Next year the fund is projected to have a $15 billion cash shortfall. Just to maintain current spending through 2020, it needs nearly $100 billion in new revenues.
Recent congressional action will ensure the immediate solvency of the fund and keep important transportation projects on track and construction workers on the job. But we’ll be back in the red in December, unless lawmakers come up with a long-term solution.
Our leaders are in almost total agreement that this is a problem that must be addressed. A permanent fix would provide certainty to businesses, states and anyone who relies on our nation’s roads, bridges and highways. It would enhance safety, mobility and productivity. It would unleash economic development, international trade and job creation. But few can agree on how to pay for it.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce believes that the simplest, most straightforward way to fix the Highway Trust Fund is to raise the gas tax, which hasn’t been done in nearly 20 years. A modest, phased-in increase — plus indexing to inflation — would shore up the fund. This proposal has gained the support of labor and key industries, including trucking and shipping. We believe that motorists could get behind it as well if Congress were serious about ensuring that the money goes to the most essential projects.
This is one idea among many to support federal funding. But in addition to federal investment, we should seek to attract more private investment, including $180 billion in available global capital. We should better leverage public-private partnerships. And we should bring greater transparency to the system and badly needed reforms to the regulatory and permitting processes.
The bottom line is that we’re not going to make meaningful progress until we start talking about the options. We’re calling on Congress to seriously consider a long-term revenue solution this fall, with the goal of creating — and seizing — the opportunity to act before year end. Time is short, and the consequences of inaction are high.
— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The opinions expressed are his own.