For years, there has been broad consensus that bold action is necessary to maintain and modernize our nation’s infrastructure. Yet, like so many bygone policy battles, the challenge has always been how to pay for it. While Washington, D.C., often chooses to overcomplicate things, the simple solution is the right one: If you are going to use infrastructure, you need to pay to maintain it.
Privately owned railroads have pumped an average of $26 billion annually over the last five years into the rail network that serves this country. As a result, the U.S. has the best freight rail system in the world. While taxpayers foot the bill for roads and highways, they pay almost nothing for the vital rail infrastructure that safely and efficiently delivers for the U.S. economy, as well as provides the foundation for passenger rail throughout the country.
If Congress and the administration are serious about a long-term, sustainable solution to the country’s infrastructure challenges, they must flip the paradigm on how surface infrastructure is funded. Most importantly, they must expect more from those who use — and damage — our infrastructure the most.
Users of the U.S. highway system are supposed to fund its maintenance through federal and state gas taxes. Since the 1950s, this user-pay system has been in place, but the last increase in the early 1990s leaves it at just 18 cents a gallon. This falls far short of what is needed today. And as cars become increasingly fuel efficient, the current gas tax model has proven to be less effective with each passing year. This has forced policy makers since 2008 to raid general taxpayer funds of $143 billion to cover shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund.
The existing gas tax model is fundamentally broken and makes taxpayers the lender of last resort to buoy critical infrastructure. Beyond consuming already scarce taxpayer dollars, it subsidizes what the trucking industry should be paying to fund the infrastructure they use and damage each year.
Restoring modal equity — meaning trucks fully pay for their use of public roads and bridges — will go a long way in closing the Highway Trust Fund gap and putting America’s highway infrastructure on a sustainable path for the future. In overhauling highway funding, policymakers have a clear path forward to institute a system that requires all highway users pay for their fair use of infrastructure.
Some states have made moves to impose a fee on drivers and truckers based upon the distance they drive or what is known as Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). It’s a simple concept where everyone using a highway pays for what they use. A few states have improved on this approach by also considering the weight of the vehicle — a so-called weight distance fee.
With freight demands expected to increase by 45 percent by 2040 according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, we cannot continue to wait to restore equity and sustainable funding to our surface transportation systems. Our highways, bridges and roads are already at a tipping point and will continue to fall further into disrepair absent wholesale change.
Earlier this year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) graded America’s infrastructure a “D+” and estimated $4.59 trillion is needed in spending over the next decade to rectify the situation. The Federal Highway Administration has estimated that an annual investment of $170 billion was necessary to improve our nation’s roads.
That same report card made clear that when one set of users — railroads — invests heavily in maintaining their transportation system, it shows in the health of their infrastructure. Those critical private investments set rail apart and earned it the highest ASCE grade — a “B.”
Policymakers and the American people can rest assured that rail will continue to do what it takes to maintain its 140,000-mile network and continue striving for that top-of-the-class ASCE grade.
But highways have to up their grade as well, and that can only happen when trucks have to chip in their full share to get the nation’s highways back to a state of good repair.
• Since 1998, Edward R. Hamberger has served as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the world’s leading railroad policy, research and standard setting organization for freight railroads of the United States, Canada and Mexico, as well as Amtrak.
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