EDITOR’S NOTE: This column appears in the January/February issue of ARTBA’s Transportation Builder magazine. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) is the ranking member of the Senate Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee, shown above at a 2016 ARTBA/TCC event. Sen. John Barrasso (R. Wyo.), chairman of the EPW Committee, declined ARTBA’s invitation to provide a column.
By U.S. Sen. Tom Carper
Shortly after we gaveled open the 115th Congress, I penned a 2017 column for Transportation Builder and postulated that, even in these particularly partisan times, infrastructure policy can and will unify both Congress and our country. Less than two years later, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Chairman Barrasso and I proved that could be true as we stood together in the Oval Office and watched the president sign our bipartisan water resources legislation into law.
That law authorizes hundreds of millions of dollars for modernizing projects across the country, supporting American jobs and protecting the environment. It’s a testament to what we can achieve by working together. And now, as we embark on the 116th Congress, before us we have yet another opportunity for bipartisanship: transforming our nation’s aging surface transportation system into the roads, highways, bridges, rail, and transit systems of the future.
As we look around, it’s clear that a 21st century transportation system must take on the myriad challenges posed by climate change. We must first acknowledge—then address—how our vehicles and travel patterns are accelerating and exacerbating climate change. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, federal policy should encourage consumers to shift to lower-emission travel on trains, buses, and bikes, or to purchase electric or alternative fuel vehicles. We can incentivize these shifts through changes to our federal transportation programs, as well as by enacting tax policy and funding electric vehicle charging stations and hydrogen fueling stations.
While our transportation sector undoubtedly contributes to climate change, it also suffers because of it. According to the National Climate Assessment report released by 13 federal agencies across the Trump administration, “[e]xpected increases in the severity and frequency of heavy precipitation events will affect inland infrastructure in every region, including access to roads, the viability of bridges, and the safety of pipelines.” We must respond to this growing threat by planning and designing projects that will endure the corrosive and, at times, destructive effects of increasingly extreme weather events and sea level rise.
Congress should also embrace the rapidly evolving landscape of our transportation sector, and the new data and technology that are now disrupting traditional practices of planning, building, operating, and using infrastructure. Constantly improving management software will help to reduce the costs and environmental impacts of construction work. Stronger datasets will enable agencies to better plan and prioritize transportation investments to improve mobility. Connected signals, for example, will ensure that roadways function more safely and efficiently for users.
This vision for a climate-friendly, modern, safer, and more connected transportation system requires a sustainable source of funding.
Over the last decade, Congress has bailed out the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) with $140 billion dollars of transfers from the General Fund. Simply put, we can’t keep kicking the can down the road. Our country has a tradition of user fees—the idea that users, businesses, and others who benefit from infrastructure help to pay for it. For more than two decades, however, the federal gasoline and diesel taxes have not been increased even to keep pace with inflation or the rising costs of construction. I, along with so many business and trade organizations, including ARTBA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, continue to be an ardent supporter of restoring the purchasing power of federal gas and diesel taxes in the near term while migrating over the coming decade to a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) approach and exploring other innovative user fees, to put the HTF on a path to long-term solvency.
Despite the clear science, some will still cast doubt on the inextricable link between harmful emissions and our changing climate. Some may dispute the need to either promote alternative technologies or regulate disruptive ones. These changes create challenges for federal policy, yet they also create an opportunity to build a transportation system that will improve our health and environment, provide meaningful employment, and expand our access to jobs and services.
At a time when Americans are paying more and more each year in car repairs because of the dilapidated state of our roads, it’s clear that business as usual is no longer an option. The vast majority of Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike—would agree that now is the time for Congress to fix the HTF and modernize our decades-old infrastructure. As we move forward to reauthorize our surface transportation programs, that’s where we should start.