Millennial Perspective: Our Failing Infrastructure and the Highway Trust Fund

Photo courtesy of Antti

By Tarsi Dunlop

In a few days time, I will get in my car and drive eight hours home to Massachusetts; during the trip, I’ll pass through eight states and the District of Columbia and over several bridges of varying expanses. Many of these roads and bridges are close to fifty years old and desperately in need of investments for upgrades. In a 2013 report, America’s Infrastructure, The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our national infrastructure a D+ - hardly sufficient.

 In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act into law. It created a 41,000 mile national system of interstate highways, the longest of which is Interstate 90, which connects Seattle, Washington with Boston, Massachusetts. The highway act allocated $26 billion to pay for the roads. Ninety percent of the construction costs were to be paid for by the federal government, using money from a 3-cent per gallon gas tax that went into a designated Highway Trust Fund. Today, this fund is facing a $170 billion structural funding gap caused by a combination of factors: better fuel efficiency standards, a decrease in how many miles Americans are driving, and the eroding value of the gas tax revenue, which was last raised in 1993.

 We must be willing, as a country, to provide greater investments if we want our national infrastructure to endure and provide economic benefits into the 21st century. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) estimates we would need to spend $20.8 billion annually, in contrast to current annual spending of $12.8 billion, to eliminate the backlog of work on U.S. bridges by 2028. The FHA also estimates that $170 billion in capital investments is needed annually to improve the conditions and performances of our federal highways.

 The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Blueprint for Millennial America highlights a Millennial preference for strengthening America’s infrastructure to avoid a future “infrastructure deficit” that stifles economic growth. In recent years, Congress has been allocating general tax revenue to the Highway Trust Fund to cover the year-to-year gap, a poor long-term approach to closing the shortfall, never mind planning for additional investments.

 The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget recently published a paper, Trust or Bust: Fixing the Federal Highway Fund, exploring the various ways to close the $170 billion deficit in the fund. It is no surprise that the main options include raising additional revenue or reducing federal spending. Congress could decide to permanently funnel additional general funds to highway investment and compensate by reducing funding to other areas, such as the Department of Defense, an entity that receives 27 cents of every federal tax dollar. Or, we could raise the gas tax and gradually, over time, to bring it back in line with today’s costs of maintaining our roads.

 Millennials are an interconnected generation, and travel and mobility are important to us. Each year that the infrastructure funding gap goes unaddressed will increase the future burden our generation will bear to undertake simple activities like getting goods to market, or driving home for the holidays. Millennials want to see government do its job, an essential part of which is to coordinate revenues towards areas of national concern. We are tired of short-sighted perspectives.