The One Thing Infrastructure Experts Feel the Federal Budget Needs Desperately

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In this photo taken, ... ] Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

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Hint: 24 states, seeking new revenue, have already done it.

WASHINGTON — Infrastructure experts renewed calls for a federal gas tax increase on the heels of the Trump administration releasing its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal and its infrastructure plan.

While President Trump’s proposals offer a starting point for the infrastructure debate, the $200 billion proposed simply isn’t enough funding for states and localities, and it comes from existing sources, these experts say.

“It’s not new federal money,” said Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future, speaking Monday at the National Association of Regional Councils winter meeting in D.C. “Which is what we very much need.”

The gas tax hasn’t been increased by the federal government since 1993, and by the end of difficult discussions that increase was far smaller than originally intended: 4.3 cents.

A substantial gas tax increase would shore up the Highway Trust fund, Hale said, and unlike the last one it should be indexed to inflation.

In its Roadmap to Modernizing America’s Infrastructure, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce suggests a 25-cent gas tax increase and indexing the tax to inflation. That way the increase would pave the way for an energy-based tax as electric vehicles become the norm in the next 12 to 15 years.

While Congress continues to deliberate over how to pay for the 65-year-old highway system, 24 states have already raised their gas taxes.

“[Federal lawmakers] don’t want to do it … and we’ve looked at all of the other options,” said Ed Mortimer, transportation infrastructure executive director at the chamber. “If there was a silver bullet, we would have already come up with it.”

Politicians don’t lose seats over their support for a gas tax increase, Hale said, because the public approves of them when governments deliver the infrastructure improvements promised.

“Financing does not replace funding,” Mortimer said, nor will the business community take seriously an infrastructure proposal that cuts other transportation programs to pony up the money.

“No one tool like public-private partnerships can replace what reliable funding streams are,” said Caroline Sevier, National Governors Association Economic Development and Commerce Committee legislative director.

All three experts agree a strong federal partner is what’s needed to repair failing infrastructure and deploy new technologies. States are developing innovation policy roadmaps for disruptive technology like autonomous vehicles, Sevier said, but that’s no substitute for federal regulations.

The infrastructure funding and financing toolkit needs to be “as large as possible,” Mortimer said, which requires improving credit options and creating discretionary grant programs for complex projects like the New York Gateway Program. Permitting must be streamlined, project timelines shortened and the workforce expanded.

“We don’t have the workers to do it,” Mortimer said.

That will require the federal government reconsidering the deportation of Dreamers and 10,000 Salvadoran immigrants in the construction business with temporary worker status, as well as enhancing apprenticeship programs, he added.

Also on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s radar are the upcoming reauthorizations of the Federal Aviation Administration, which needs to be modernized, and the Water Resources Development Act. Both could be part of a larger infrastructure package.

Mortimer also advocated for proper use of the Airport and Harbor Maintenance trust funds as part of the infrastructure discussion.

“We believe that the federal government needs to spend those for their intended purposes,” he said. “Not just sit on them, which is what they’ve been doing.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.

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