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Samuel I. Schwartz, P.E.Back to OpinionSamuel I. Schwartz, P.E.

An indecent proposal for our country’s infrastructure future

Talk about losing touch with reality: Our transit, rail, highway and bridge networks are crumbling and the House of Representatives proposes to cut transportation spending by 35 percent! If your roof has a small leak, do you wait till the roof collapses? But, in an effort to be “fiscally responsible,” the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure wants to cut jobs now and saddle future generations with enormous costs.

What’s wrong with being fiscally responsible, you ask? Nothing — unless it’s built on bad math. The House wants to tie future transportation funding to the revenue generated by the Highway Trust Fund. But while transportation-infrastructure needs are only growing, the HTF is steadily decreasing. Gas tax receipts, which fund the HTF, declined by 1 percent in 2011. That’s the sixth year in a row that HTF revenues shrunk. Why? Look at the numbers: Gas taxes haven’t been adjusted for inflation (much less raised) since 1993. As inflation rises, Americans are paying less and less in real dollar amounts into the Highway Trust Fund. The 18.4 cent federal gas tax would have to be 28 cents per gallon today to bring in the same real-dollar revenue. Due to inflation alone, the purchasing power of HTF revenues has been reduced by about 33 percent — one third — over the past 17 years, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Tying transportation spending to the Highway Trust Fund without increasing the amount of revenue it brings in isn’t fiscally responsible: It’s just deferring the true costs of our infrastructure crisis onto our children.

New York went through a bridge crisis in the 1970s and 1980s when I was the city’s chief transportation engineer. The West Side Highway collapsed, cables snapped on the Brooklyn Bridge killing a tourist, the Williamsburg Bridge was shut for three months and concrete rained from the FDR Drive, killing a Brooklyn dentist. Then Mayor Ed Koch put into place a capital and preventive maintenance program that left New York City with stronger bridges today than most cities in the country. But New York City’s past could be the future for the rest of the country unless we start adequately funding our transportation system.

How is it fiscally responsible to ignore the reality of our nation’s transportation needs? Just to maintain the current performance of the highway system (which is already rated a D- by the American Society of Civil Engineers), the Congressional Budget Office testified in May 2011 that the federal government would have to increase its funding share to $57 billion a year – about one-third more than the amount it spent in 2010. And yet the Republican-led House recommends cutting transportation funding by a third! The forthcoming bill proposal from the Democratic-controlled Senate looks like it will be a bit better, but still grossly inadequate.

This bill from the Republican-led House is distressing because the GOP, as a party, has historically supported our nation’s infrastructure. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System. Republican President Ronald Reagan passed a 5-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike for the Highway Trust Fund. Republican President George H. W. Bush tacked on another 5 cent federal gas tax increase during his tenure. These Republicans understood the fiscal and moral significance of maintaining our country’s transportation infrastructure. In the words of the 1988 Fragile Foundations report, which was commissioned by none other than Ronald Reagan: “A declining infrastructure inevitably will jeopardize the productivity of our economy and our quality of life … And unless we dramatically enhance the capacity and performance of the nation’s public works … we will default on our obligation to the future, and succeeding generations will have to compensate for our failures.”

But where is our politicians’ sense of responsibility now? Our elected officials talk about runaway taxes, but the reality is that they’re running away scot-free with de facto tax cuts that will condemn our children to account for this bill proposal’s fiscal irresponsibility.

— Additional reporting by Laura MacNeil.