I-5 Bridge collapse: Refocus on Highway Trust Fund

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Authorities are trying to determine what caused the I-5 bridge to collapse about 60 miles north of Seattle in Skagit County.  While the cause of the collapse is not yet known, this unfortunate occurrence does provide a window into what happens to supply chains and passenger travel when a major corridor is closed, and a corridor with no redundancy–no good way to detour traffic.

We have to think of transportation systems not just interstate highways when we contemplate the role of the federal government. Travelers and business will certainly be looking for options to maintain mobility in the most efficient way.

And yes, while transportation is at top of mind, we should turn attention to the impending collapse of the Highway Trust Fund and take this time to get focused on how to increase investment so that we can replace functionally obsolete and structurally deficient bridges.  

According to a recent statement by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to the House Budget Committee, the Highway Trust Fund won’t be able to meet its obligations come 2015. Federal lawmakers, the report says, would have to cut transportation spending by 92% or raise the gas tax by more than 50% in order to bring revenue and spending in line.

The Highway Trust Fund, which gets its money from taxes on gasoline and motor fuels, is the source of money for federal spending on highways, bridges, roads and transit. The fund has struggled for years to remain in the black — ever since federal transportation spending started exceeding the dedicated taxes used to pay for it.

With more and more money going to basic maintenance and operations, there is a risk of being stuck with a 20th century system when we should be anticipating the future and investing in 21st century infrastructure. We can’t do that without resources from both the public and private sectors.

The private sector can help in four significant ways.

First, we are willing to pay to support public infrastructure.

This includes paying more in user fees to shore up the Highway Trust Fund and ensure adequate investment. With the money running out, we need to phase in a moderate increase in the gas tax over a number of years and index it to inflation. Shippers and truckers are all on board to pay a little more as long as the money goes back to where it is needed.

Second, we are prepared to invest private capital.

When it comes to private investment in public infrastructure, we are prepared to pump as much as $250 billion in private capital into P3s. In order to do that, more states must allow, by law,

P3s. Governors and legislatures need to reduce the political and financial risk of private participation in these projects so investors know projects will be approved in a timely manner and will have a good possibility of a decent return.

Third, we can provide our expertise and innovations.

In order to make infrastructure work better for travelers, businesses, shippers and carriers, we can mend our expertise and innovations to creating the most efficient system. We must make the transportation infrastructure that exists today work most efficiently, in the most cost-effective way.

And fourth, we are putting in the sweat equity.

We believe in building the case for a world-class infrastructure system that will put Americans back to work, spur our economy, enhance our global competitiveness, reduce congestion and improve mobility and safety, and prove that American can still get big things done. We are lobbying, we are educating, and we are building support.

We are launching a new project, the Prospectus for Investing in America’s Infrastructure, to engage the larger business community in the effort to articulate what the future of infrastructure needs to look like so that we can expand coalition of supporters and build the political will to reform, reinvent and reinvest in infrastructure.

The Chamber calls upon all of America’s leaders in and out of government to put this country first. America needs big solutions—it is time to put the smallness of politics aside.

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