Road to Nowhere: The Dire Status of U.S. Infrastructure

The collapse of a major bridge on I-10 connecting California to Arizona served as a striking reminder that US infrastructure is failing and little is being done about it.

Bridge in Troubled Water

On Sunday afternoon, a bridge along Interstate 10—a key shipping route between Arizona and Southern California—collapsed during a heavy rainstorm, injuring one and leaving countless drivers stuck. The bridge, built in 1967, had been labeled “functionally obsolete” by the National Bridge Inventory in 2014. No plans had been made for its repair. Fourteen percent of bridges in the United States have similar designations. It’s a terrifying reminder that action needs to be taken to repair our nation’s infrastructure, and Congress recently had the option to pass a 6-year funding bill to address the issue. 

Instead, they further delayed things. On July 15, the House passed a bill 312-119 that extended Federal highway spending until December. The five-month extension is meant to temporarily shore up government funding for transportation programs while lawmakers work on a long-term bill. Congress is under pressure to quickly deliberate on effective measures that resolve the seemingly chronic problem of transportation money, but it’s following a pattern of putting things off: there have 34 short-term funding bills like last week’s passed since 2009. The bill adds $8 billion to the program, although given the dilapidated state of America’s infrastructure, Senators estimate that  roads will need twice that amount.

The challenge lies in the bill’s major source of funding: The federal fuel tax, which charges 18.4 cents per gallon. So far, the tax has not been sufficient to cover all proposed projects, putting pressure on Congress to scramble for additional means of income in recent years. Federal fuel taxes bring in around $35 billion a year, but the government spends around $50 billion on transportation programs. The fuel tax has not risen since 1993, and Congress is hesitant to raise it. House Ways and Means Chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R., WI) has assured Congress that he will not be raising the gas tax, even though it is no longer a sufficient source of income. According to the Washington Post, proposals have been drawn up to either cut spending or increase taxes elsewhere, by introducing more highway tolls and taxing drivers by miles driven. Rep. Ryan has proposed increasing funding through a one-time tax on multinational corporations preceding an overall drop in future earnings. That strategy has caused controversy on both sides of the political spectrum, from corporations with offshore funds to Democrats who don’t want to see corporate taxes lowered.

Aides have warned that the renewal of the authorization is not enough. Without a steady program, the balance in the Highway Fund could drop to below $4 billion—the minimum amount needed to supply to all states without interruption—by the end of July.  Congress has admitted that it needs more time to draft a permanent resolution for these funding problems. Lawmakers say that perhaps a six-year bill would alleviate the constant uncertainty all states feel regarding federal aid. Still, some states have delayed or abandoned construction projects this year rather than wait for Congress to come up with a solution.

Poor infrastructure slows down our nation’s supply chain, augmenting freight costs and increasing congestion. While a multi-year funding plan is necessary for states to begin long-term projects, partisan struggles have resulted in gridlock. There are plenty of solutions to go around—Congress needs to work together to find one that works into the next decade. Advances like self-driving cars are important, but they’re of no use if our roads aren’t fit to drive on.

For more information on what's wrong with our infrastructure, check out our whiteboard videos.

 

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