It's been all talk and no action when it comes to fixing the nation's infrastructure. Despite a spate of articles, calls for action, and attempts at legislative fixes, we seem to be no closer to a solution than we were 10 years ago.
In 2012, President Obama signed into law the "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century" Act (MAP-21), which provided funds for highway expansion. But that ultimately proved to be more of a patch than a solution. Part of the problem was a lack of a comprehensive plan and funding mechanism. Although he discussed infrastructure numerous times, President Obama seemed to view the issue largely as a job creation opportunity. It was a flashback to 1936, when Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided jobs for several million Americans. During the WPA's eight years in existence, WPA laborers built 651,087 miles of highways and roads, built or repaired 124,031 bridges, and constructed thousands of other public facilities. The problem then, as now, was that there was no comprehensive plan, other than to put people to work.
So when President Trump hinted that he'd make a big infrastructure announcement in his Feb. 28 address to Congress, we pricked up our ears. During the campaign, he had repeatedly vowed to address the problem, and we were looking forward to hearing about his plans. But in the end, we were disappointed. In a speech that devoted only 139 of 5,006 words to this critical issue, Trump simply restated what he has said before: "I will be asking Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States ... creating millions of new jobs. Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways gleaming across our beautiful land." As for financing, he is proposing that the work be funded through public/private partnerships (referred to as P3s). That, of course, translates to "tolling our interstates," which is currently illegal (the practice was banned under the legislation that authorized the interstate highway system in 1956).
Concurrently with all this, Congress has refused to raise the fuel tax, which has not been adjusted in 24 years. Most industry organizations and experts, including the American Trucking Associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have advocated for an increase, but congressional leaders apparently would rather have a root canal than raise fuel taxes. This is in spite of the fact that recent surveys have shown that 79 percent of adult Americans approve of infrastructure spending.
In the meantime, several states have raised their fuel taxes to pay for their own projects. On March 2, the U.S. Conference of Mayors also weighed in on the subject, pressing the federal government to distribute infrastructure funds directly to cities, bypassing the states. In short, the entire problem has gotten out of control. There still is no sign of an overall plan for the needed improvements. And the funding issue is far from resolved. Many of our needs will not be attractive to investors. And even if private investors step up to finance specific road and bridge projects, they will have to be repaid, which means the costs will ultimately be passed on to users. We could easily find ourselves paying tolls and user fees, plus increased state taxes, leaving us in a worse position than we would have been in if Congress had simply raised fuel taxes in the first place.
And as far as the "new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways gleaming across our beautiful land," good luck with that one.