Counties Provide the Local Lens for Infrastructure Package

It’s Infrastructure Week in the nation’s capital and across the country as local governments and others make the case for renewed federal investment in our nation’s roads, bridges, and transit. Of course, the elephant in the room is what may emerge from the Trump administration or Congress on this front.

The National Association of Counties (NACo) has long stressed the importance of modernizing the nation’s infrastructure system, especially because counties own and maintain the largest share of public road miles – 46 percent of the total nationwide, 230,000 bridges – or four out of every ten nationwide, and are involved in the operation of a third of the nation’s airports and public transportation systems.

In Maryland, counties own and maintain 74 percent of the public roads. Local governments own and maintain 83 percent of our transportation network.

According to Route Fifty,

These facts make it clear that counties can offer important insights into prioritizing transportation infrastructure needs—through the local lens where people live and work. Although we’ve made significant progress locally, we can’t do it alone. We need a strong partnership with states and the federal government to accomplish our transportation infrastructure goals.

When it comes to roads, our nation’s infrastructure program has long depended on the federal gasoline tax. Since 1993, consumers paid 18.4 cents per gallon toward the Highway Trust Fund, the main federal funding mechanism for road and bridge improvement and construction projects. While inflation has risen 65 percent since then, the gas tax has seen no increase.

What else has changed? In 1993, cars were not getting over 30 miles per gallon, and the idea of a viable hybrid was in its infancy. Today, hybrids are more mainstream, using the roads without consuming much gas and contributing to the gas tax. Electric vehicles with no gas tank also share our roads without contributing to the gas tax. Combine this with inflation and increased construction costs, and it’s easy to see that the American infrastructure funding model has been stuck in neutral for over two decades. It’s time to kick things into high gear.

Congress has shown no appetite to raise the federal gas tax, both sides of the aisle fearing political repercussions at the ballot box. Meanwhile, our roads have deteriorated and our airports have become overly congested. While Congress has passed numerous pieces of legislation to aid our infrastructure network since 2000, no real infusion of funds was conceived until the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as “the stimulus.” This provided over $103 billion toward infrastructure improvements.

Fast forward to 2017 and a new presidential administration. President Trump has declared infrastructure investment as one of his top domestic priorities. Leaders on both sides of the aisle are receptive to an infrastructure package, with the trillion-dollar question being: How are we going to pay for it? Tax credits? Public-Private Partnerships? Municipal bonds? A federal infrastructure bank? A pot of money at the end of the rainbow?

Depending on whom you ask, the answers will yield different opinions. The real answer, however, is all of the above.

Tax credits, while incentivizing industry to undertake projects, will not be viable across our vast topography. P3s, while having a proven record of success, will not benefit our most rural and remote communities, where it’s nearly impossible to attract private-sector investments. Nor do they work for small and medium-sized projects due to their high transaction costs. Therefore, the administration and Congress must make available every tool in the toolbox and include all the options listed above.

Airport improvements may provide an easier solution. According to the United States Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics, airlines in 2015 profited almost $4 billion from checked bags alone, allowing for a newer and more efficient fleet. Airports, on the other hand, generate revenue from the Airport Improvement Fund and what is called the passenger facilities charge (PFC), included on each ticket at $4.50. The RSMeans Construction Cost Indexes indicates that the current value of the maximum $4.50 PFC is worth roughly half of what it was when it was implemented in 2000. Raising this fee, even nominally, would allow our airports to expand capacity, invite greater competition among airlines and provide for a better traveler experience. Additionally, it would reduce the reliance on the federal government for airport funds, freeing up that money for other infrastructure projects.

Counties are pleased with the prospect of a new infrastructure package and regulatory reform that could streamline projects. We stand ready to work with Congress and the administration to improve our roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure that keeps our nation moving forward.

From the big urban areas, majestic mountains, rural landscapes and everything in between, all of America needs a transportation facelift. It would provide jobs, improve quality of life and increase safety. Ensuring that no communities are left behind will be paramount and the true measure of success.

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