GUEST COMMENTARY: A way forward exists for infrastructure investments
Holding the distinction of the longest-serving member of Congress is an honor, but I’m more thankful for the experience and knowledge I’ve gained in those years.
Through 10 U.S. presidents, 10 speakerships, and the cyclical flip-flop between majority and minority, I’ve had a front-row seat to the negotiations behind some of the nation’s most transformative legislation. It’s come with no shortage of lessons, but perhaps the most important is an old adage: Where there is a will, there is a way.
There is undoubtedly a will for major national infrastructure investments. Regardless of congressional district or state, Americans across the country have long called for action to address aging, outdated, and unsafe infrastructure.
Instead, “Infrastructure Week” has devolved into a punchline, and the country’s hopes for smart, targeted investments in their communities have waned year after year.
It’s long past time for Washington, D.C., to come together and agree on an infrastructure plan that meets the needs of our modern economy, reforms the permitting process, and puts our core transportation programs on sustainable footing.
Further delay poses an existential threat to our economy’s long-term strength, and without infrastructure, our global competitiveness is on the line. We must not risk falling behind the rest of the world.
While the momentum behind White House and Republican negotiations seems to change on a daily basis, I firmly believe the path forward is the bipartisan way. That’s why I submitted my own infrastructure framework, which takes a sober look at the situation while steering clear of partisan orthodoxy.
Infrastructure is ubiquitous and serves as the foundation for our economy and quality of life. We cannot and should not take a near-term, cycle-to-cycle approach. It’s too important not to receive input from Congress as a whole, making it vital to move a bill through regular order.
As discussions so far have proven, it will not be an easy road, but as former Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I have no doubt that it is possible. We must remember that Congress is not a stranger to the definition of infrastructure.
As a body, we regularly agree on and pass infrastructure measures, such as Surface Transportation Reauthorization legislation, the Water Resources Development Act, and even in the Farm Bill, proving consensus is within reach.
Knowing this also alleviates the pressure for one legislative package to be a silver bullet for all infrastructure needs, and directs focus to critical physical infrastructure. My colleagues in Congress should reject the notion that there must be one all-encompassing bill or no bill at all. This is a false choice.
Instead, they should replace it with a steadfast resolve to put in place tools that keep Americans safe, improve lives, and keep the country competitive for future generations.
If we want to build and sustain a robust national transportation system and upgrade our nation’s infrastructure, we need to commit to a few specific pillars, beginning with an honest funding mechanism. We must also understand that infrastructure investments are not a one-shot deal. Infrastructure investments at every level of government require maintenance and repair.
That is why Congress created the Highway Trust Fund, or HTF, and enacted a federal excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuels, which are the principal contributors to the HTF. The “gas tax,” as it is commonly referred to, has not been raised since 1993, and as a result, has lost 40 to 45 percent of its purchasing power.
At the same time, federal fuel efficiency standards have resulted in lower gas tax receipts as overall gas consumption has declined.
The HTF was created to fund so-called “core infrastructure.” Core infrastructure, like roads, bridges, safety, transit, and rail, are undoubtedly responsibilities of the federal government. Congress currently funds and routinely updates them through so-called “highway bills.”
Over the last 20 years, I believe that much of the controversy over how much to invest and where to invest in our nation’s transportation system will be alleviated by putting the HTF on a stable trajectory to secure long-term solvency.
That is why my framework calls for modernizing the gas tax to account for post-1993 inflation. To stabilize the HTF, my reforms go even further. My plan calls for a phase-out of the gas tax into a user fee, or Vehicle Mileage Tax, for gasoline and diesel vehicles over at least ten years, and addresses the electric vehicle free-rider problem by phasing in a VMT over five years.
Funding for the HTF will be transitioned away from a gas tax and into a user fee-based system. This transition will be justly targeted and fine-tuned, not only to recoup the costs that vehicles impose on the roads, but to ensure that electric vehicle owners, like myself, pay our fair share.
Secondly, if Congress agrees — as I believe it should — to spend additional monies on other forms of infrastructure, such as airports, ports and waterways, clean water infrastructure, electrical generation, grid modernization, and broadband, then I fervently believe that Congress should not engage in budget gimmicks, but must raise the revenues to pay for this spending.
My plan would include a slight increase in the corporate tax rate, excluding small and family-owned businesses, to offset some of the cost of this additional spending. The increase would be limited to no more than a 4 percent increase to a rate of 25 percent.
Congress should recognize that there is wisdom in the “user pays user benefits” principle. Corporations benefit from and are users of America’s infrastructure. The benefits of a modernized national transportation system will outweigh the costs of a rate increase over the long term.
Doing the hard work of providing long term certainty for transportation funding mechanisms will go a long way toward giving the market clear signals on where we are going as a nation. And thanks to rapid technological advancements, the world looks and operates a whole lot differently than it did when I was first elected.
It will continue to evolve, and we need to plan for that reality by harnessing innovative technology to maximize benefits for Americans in every corner of our country. A look at nationwide broadband gaps and recent electric grid failures illustrate the distance the country must go to meet that goal.
For Alaska, the climb is even steeper. Our state’s relative infancy and challenging geography have kept access to even basic infrastructure out of reach for many. More than 80 percent of Alaska communities are off the road system and only accessible by water or air, presenting unique challenges ranging from energy affordability to the need for strong maritime infrastructure.
Addressing Alaska’s needs and the distinct infrastructure needs of states across the country will provide the nation with a fortified, resilient foundation, both physically and economically. In the short term, we can expect federal spending to spur job creation in all parts of Alaska and the country, particularly as we continue to rebound from the pandemic.
In the long term, we’d rebuild the advantages that allowed our country to prosper up to this point, such as connected transportation routes and cost-effective, reliable power. Additionally, we would maintain our competitive edge by boosting America’s self-sufficiency and versatility.
To move Alaska and the country ahead, Republicans and Democrats must find a way forward together on infrastructure. As the Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I understood the importance of reaching across the aisle to forge common ground.
I know how to get this done. In 2005, President George W. Bush signed my bill, SAFETEA-LU, into law. At that time, it was the largest surface transportation investment in our nation’s history, and enjoyed the support of then-Sen. Joe Biden. Sixteen years later, I ask now-President Biden to give my proposals a fair hearing so that we may set course for the next century of sound American infrastructure.
Through my proposal and continued conversations, I’m committed to the process and seeing a bipartisan infrastructure bill pass through Congress. I call on my friends in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle to make that commitment with me.
Don Young is Alaska’s representative in the U.S. House.