In communities all over the country, commuters put up with heavy traffic and aging transit systems because they don’t really have a choice. People need to get to work, bring their children to day care or school, care for an aging parent or simply attend to a few errands. We all rely on our infrastructure system even if we don’t own a car or use public transportation. It impacts our economy and our quality of life. It is a key component of addressing inequality as well as creating a level playing field for all Americans and a pathway to sustainability. Yet our system suffers from neglect.
A robust infrastructure initiative was one of the first issues President Trump touted as he pledged to reach across the aisle to work in a bipartisan fashion. It has taken almost a year’s worth of rumors and seeming false starts, but Mr. Trump finally released his infrastructure plan last month. Frankly, it is bewildering why it took so long to put together this plan, which is really more of a rough draft. The proposal lacks substance and offers few answers to key questions, including such basics as where the money will come from to actually implement the plan.
The administration put a $200 billion price tag on its infrastructure plan, then cut transportation in its proposed budget released right around the same time. The New Starts program, which helps states fund large transit projects, was cut and no money was devoted to new projects. Amtrak funding was also cut. The popular and effective Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program was eliminated. This program is an important funding source that helps communities modernize and rehabilitate their infrastructure. These cuts call into question the seriousness with which Mr. Trump is really taking infrastructure investment.
What has become crystal clear is that the president does not believe the federal government has an essential role to play in transportation. That $200 billion the president symbolically puts on the table must be matched by over $1 trillion — yes, that’s right OVER $1 trillion — from other, nonfederal sources. That is a daunting number. When you include Mr. Trump’s desire to eliminate the largest programs that also have an impact on the greatest number of people, the logical conclusion is inescapable: In his view, the days when the federal government played a pivotal role in ensuring transportation equity are over.
Mr. Trump does have some ideas that he believes would make money for transportation. The administration suggests selling off federal assets such as the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Maryland. Let’s leave aside the debate over whether the idea itself makes sense. It won’t come close to generating the revenue to fund Mr. Trump’s infrastructure plan.
There is one funding suggestion that should be part of any transportation discussion, but most people don’t want to talk about it — raising the gas tax. This revenue is dedicated to transportation and has not been raised in more than two decades. In 1993, a regular-sized candy bar cost 50 cents. Today, consumers will pay three times more for the sweet treat. Everything associated with infrastructure, from construction materials to labor costs, has gone up, but the federal funding mechanism for transportation hasn’t been increased since 1993.
Certainly, raising the gas tax is not the only way to generate revenue, but it should be part of the discussion. Other ideas include user fees, vehicle mile tolls and rush hour travel fees. According to White House sources, Mr. Trump has privately supported a 25-cent user fee increase, so at least in private he seems to understand that nothing happens without money.
Mr. Trump’s proposal is restarting a long-stalled conversation about our aging infrastructure, but his plan shouldn’t represent the final word. Let’s have that robust debate. All revenue ideas should be fully explored. Not all of them will work or make sense or have the political support to advance. If nothing is done on the revenue side, our roads will continue to crumble, and our trains will continue to break down. It was just over a decade ago that a bridge in Minnesota collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring many more. That disaster shined a tragic light on the nation’s transportation challenges, but not enough progress has been made.
This is one issue that Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on.
• Rep. Michael E. Capuano, Massachusetts Democrat, is the Ranking Member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.
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