Amid the scorched-earth partisan warfare that is Washington politics these days, President Donald Trump and top Democrats have reached a rare agreement in principle for a huge undertaking. Their goal — an urgently needed national infrastructure overhaul — has virtually no details attached to it yet, other than a $2 trillion price tag.
How to fund this behemoth will inevitably be the major sticking point. Raising the long-stagnant federal fuel tax is one idea that is already getting some surprising support. In any case, giving up isn't an option — not when the world's most advanced nation is watching its roads, bridges and other undergirdings of modern society crumble under its feet.
In addition to highways and bridges, infrastructure encompasses rail, ports, aviation, dams, energy grids, public parks, waste disposal facilities, school buildings and more. It's all the structural systems that organized society builds and maintains for the common good.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. an "infrastructure report card." The last one, in 2017, was a D-plus. That was actually an improvement over the D-minus of 2009, but still nowhere near where it needs to be.
The cause isn't complicated: money. Most of America's infrastructure was designed in the 1950s and '60s, when the U.S. population was about half what it is now. Those systems are reaching or have passed the end of their design lifespans. Yet public infrastructure spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has dropped significantly during that time.
Infrastructure improvement has wide support across the political spectrum. The problem is paying for it. Republicans who were willing to explode the federal deficit for tax cuts mainly benefiting the rich have signaled they won't be willing to raise taxes or deficit spend to fund infrastructure. Democrats won't (and shouldn't) sacrifice safety-net programs for it.
But the situation isn't necessarily intractable. The 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal fuel tax (24.4 cents for diesel), is a natural go-to, since it's paid by those who use the nation's most extensive infrastructure system. It hasn't been raised since 1993.
Even the generally anti-tax U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants a 25-cent increase in the fuel tax for this very purpose. The chamber wants the tax to be indexed to inflation, so it doesn't have to be continually revisited. Since today's rising fuel efficiency cuts into that revenue, calculating it based on miles traveled rather than gallons used should also be considered.
While that wouldn't be enough to cover what's needed, it would be a place to start. Unlike most governmental issues, there is a limit to how long infrastructure upgrades can be put off before serious, potentially catastrophic results ensue. Washington's partisan warfare won't subside any time soon, but on this topic, there needs to be a truce — and progress.
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