The United States’ infrastructure network is quickly falling behind the rest of the world. This is why President Trump has made it a priority to invest and modernize the way we move people, goods and ideas. We must act now while there is a bipartisan desire to accomplish this goal; however, the political realities require us to think differently on how we move forward.
Front and center in this debate is funding. Recently, I chaired a hearing that examined the long-term funding problems that have plagued our federal surface transportation programs. There was a consensus among our witnesses and committee members that addressing transportation funding is the most important issue to solve and that a long-term solution is critical to any modernization effort — a sentiment that is shared broadly among Members of Congress. However, many of the solutions presented to fund a 21st century infrastructure were left over from the 20th century. In my opinion, it’s time to look toward the future.
I remain open to any viable option that leads to a modern, sustainable Highway Trust Fund (HTF). In order to do so, we need to acknowledge the problems we face with our current funding sources. Increasing fuel efficiency for passenger and commercial vehicles, along with the continued proliferation of vehicles that don’t pay fuel taxes at all, will continue to exacerbate our funding problems. In 2015, the same year we passed the most recent five-year highway bill, federal transportation taxes collected $39 billion to support $52 billion in program commitments. That put Congress in a hole and we once again had to dip into other funding sources to make up the difference. That disparity between revenues and commitments will continue to grow and is unsustainable if we hope to meet our future transportation needs. Dreams of transformative infrastructure projects will remain just dreams.
There is hope. In the last major infrastructure bill, Congress had the foresight to invest and study innovative funding solutions, including actively testing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) concepts. Federal and state governments clearly see the trends and are preparing for the future. While there remain questions about the mechanisms of a new system, it seems clear to me that if we aggressively pursue this option we can put ourselves in the best position to achieve the goal of long-term, sustainable funding for infrastructure projects — something we all want.
According to estimates, a modest VMT user fee on personal and commercial vehicles could raise enough funding to replace the gas tax and exceed our current infrastructure obligations. Those transformative infrastructure projects would then become more of a reality.
Progress is being made. Several states are working, with federal support, to further develop the idea. For example, California is in the process of testing “pay at the pump” technology to allow users to pay the VMT as they go, just as drivers are accustomed to now. Similarly, Oregon has tested a variety of payment methods as part of the most expansive study done to date. Concerns about privacy are being taken seriously and there are plenty of options to address those concerns — it can be as simple as an odometer reading. Innovation in this space is happening rapidly, and with a strong commitment from transportation leaders, a new funding system could be deployed a lot faster than most people acknowledge.
As a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I am amazed by all the technological advancements being made within our transportation system, but the government needs to keep up. I’m optimistic that technology not only will improve how our infrastructure network functions but can also be harnessed to help solve how we fund it. This is my vision and it’s why I am committed to advancing a 21st century solution for a modern, sustainable Highway Trust Fund.
• Rep. Sam Graves, Missouri Republican, is Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. Chairman Graves is running to chair the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee next year.
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