Rep. Don Young

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of congressional district or state, Americans across the country have long called for action to address aging, outdated, and unsafe infrastructure.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.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Attempt to repeal ANWR development an insult to Alaskans

Last week the House of Representatives approved measures that would restrict America’s future energy supply, including one that would block responsible development in northeast Alaska. As the state’s congressional delegation, we are unified in strong opposition and believe passage would be a reckless strategic mistake. The bill in question comes from a California representative and targets the non-wilderness 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Congress set aside in 1980 for future exploration. After years of debate, Congress agreed in 2017 to allow careful development of just 2,000 acres of the 1.5-million-acre area, itself located within the ANWR’s 19.3 million acres. This developable fraction of a fraction amounts to one ten-thousandth of the refuge. We believe, in fairness to Alaskans, that the leasing program should proceed responsibly, with Congress and the Trump administration ensuring that lands and wildlife are cared for. All of us are working to put the proper guidelines in place. Yet some in Congress still remain eager to repeal the provision, based on misperceptions about what is at stake and what most Alaskans want. Most offensively, the repeal effort ignores the Inupiat people of Kaktovik, the only village located in the ANWR. Most who live there, like a sizable majority of Alaskans, support responsible development of the 1002 Area. Members of Congress seeking a repeal ignore the significant environmental protections that apply to development, as well as the decades-long record of safe operations on Alaska’s northern coast under some of the world’s strictest environmental regulations and oversight. They ignore incredible advances in technology, which have dramatically reduced the surface footprint of development while increasing drillers’ subsurface reach by as much as 40 times. They also overlook the importance of economic vitality in sustaining Alaskan life. Our state wasn’t allowed into the union until 1959 when Washington was finally satisfied we could support ourselves through resource production, and maintaining a strong economy remains essential to all of our goals, including environmental preservation. Alaska is still young and will need to develop its resources long into the future. As recent years have shown, our economy, our state budget and our people suffer when federal restrictions prevent development. But it isn’t only Alaska that stands to lose. According to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Alaskan oil supports 12,000 jobs and $780 million in wages in Washington’s Puget Sound region each year. All of that could vanish if the Trans-Alaska Pipeline shuts down. The pipeline is currently only a quarter full and needs new throughput from the 1002 Area to reach capacity. Further south, data from the California Energy Commission shows the state’s imports of foreign oil have risen significantly as Alaska production has declined. California’s answer is that it plans simply to stop using oil—yet it still ranks near the top of the list of oil-refining states. Despite ceaseless rhetoric about a Green New Deal, the reality is that our nation and the world are demanding the resources that will come from the 1002 Area. If Alaska doesn’t supply them, another country will. Global oil demand is rising, not falling. President Trump’s commitment to America’s energy renaissance has helped create thousands of well-paying jobs across America, strengthening families and communities along the way. And while prices have been relatively stable, artificial restrictions can lead to price spikes that cause hardship and unrest. See Paris as a recent example. Careful development of the 1002 Area will help strengthen America’s economy and improve our energy security in the long-term. It will also benefit global energy markets, allowing the U.S. to provide allies with alternatives to resources from unfriendly nations and cartels. Competition for resources in the Arctic is another geopolitical dimension of the ANWR issue. Russia and China are expanding their presence in the region, with billions of dollars of investments in infrastructure. The U.S. is falling behind in icebreakers, deep-draft ports and other Arctic infrastructure needs. Pulling up the stakes on an American energy program that helps build a presence in the region would put us further behind. We understand that Alaska has earned an almost mythological place in the minds of many Americans. But we cannot be treated like a snow globe, to be placed on the shelf for viewing pleasure only. Alaska has tens of millions of acres of national parks, wildlife refuges and federal wilderness. We also have room for the responsible development of a small part of the 1002 Area, and all Americans should recognize this is in our nation’s best interest.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Unite to rebuild infrastructure for Alaska and the nation

“Gridlock.” “Dysfunction.” “Stalemate.” In recent years, all of these words have been used in reference to Washington – especially after the 2018 elections created a divided Congress. It’s true that the partisan divide has oftentimes made it difficult to get things done, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This Congress, Republicans and Democrats from districts across the country have an opportunity to find common ground on an issue important to all of us: infrastructure. As former chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, I understand how important strong roads, ports, and bridges are to my fellow members and their constituents. Robust infrastructure is essential to a strong economy, and when the economy is booming, we all benefit. Improving America’s infrastructure could be the shot in the arm needed to take an already booming economy into overdrive. According to the Council of Economic Advisers, the economy could grow at an additional 3 percent if Congress comes together to pass major infrastructure legislation. However, any successful bipartisan infrastructure bill will need to address a range of issues currently facing our airports, harbors, and roads. First and foremost, Congress must come to an agreement on funding and find a way to fix the Federal Highway Trust Fund for the long-term. The Highway Trust Fund is in danger of becoming totally insolvent, and if you’ve seen the condition of some of Alaska’s highways – including the Alaska-Canada highway – you know how critical it is to stabilize this important funding source. Recent Congressional Budget Office estimates report that the Federal Highway Trust Fund will run out of money by 2022, making reform even more urgent. If we’re going to fix the Highway Trust Fund, we must be willing to consider all available options. Revenues from the federal gas tax have been steadily decreasing as our automobiles become more fuel efficient, and there are more electric vehicles in use, and dollars don’t buy as much as they once did. Just a few years ago, the federal gas tax collected $39 billion in revenue, but needed to support $52 billion in program commitments. The imbalance between revenue collection and highway spending is unsustainable, and only makes it more difficult for Congress to make progress on delivering the infrastructure that America needs. The most obvious solution to this problem is to simply raise the gas tax and adjust it for inflation. However, this simply wouldn’t generate enough revenue as cars are less reliant on gasoline than ever before. Another suggested solution is to initiate some type of user fee or vehicle-miles-traveled, or VMT, tax, which has seen some success in various states that have started pilot programs to test the viability of this solution. Methods to administer such a program on a nationwide scale are untested, and it would be important to ensure that constituents in rural states such as Alaska are not disproportionately affected by a user fee or VMT tax. Regardless of the method used, the fact of the matter is that both Republicans and Democrats want to fix the Federal Highway Trust Fund, and for the sake of the constituents who sent us here, we need to get it done. Rapidly-advancing technology is also improving lives across the world, and Congress should be prepared to not only harness this new technology to improve our infrastructure, but to develop a regulatory approach that keeps Americans safe, but doesn’t hamper innovation or further progress. The promise of companies like Amazon making unmanned deliveries via drone, or Tesla producing self-driving cars represents a new frontier in infrastructure and commerce, but also raises new safety concerns. In any new infrastructure effort, Congress must resist the urge to overregulate these technologies and instead opt for a light-touch approach that finds a regulatory balance while protecting public safety. Another focus that a potential bipartisan infrastructure package must also address is the lengthy permitting and project delivery process that has left so many projects in limbo. Time is money, and implementing oversight and looking for ways to eliminate unnecessary delays saves hard-earned taxpayer dollars. Environmental impact statements – though needed – can cause unnecessary delays, and create cost overruns that threaten entire infrastructure projects. President Trump and congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle must come together to reform the permitting process to better streamline project delivery while still protecting our environment. Project management is vital for the efficient completion of large infrastructure projects and if we are serious about putting together a robust infrastructure package, management standards must be considered in the legislation to ensure taxpayer dollars are not wasted. As Dean of the House, I’ve been fortunate to play a role in major, bipartisan wins for Alaska and our country. I firmly believe that this divided Congress has the opportunity to reverse the trend of crumbling roads and bridges, and finally get major infrastructure legislation passed. This year let’s finally break the gridlock, lose the “dysfunctional” label, and send an infrastructure bill to the President that our constituents can be proud of. Our communities and our economy depend on it. Rep. Don Young is the longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives and submitted this column to mark infrastructure week May 13-20.
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