- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

When Dwight Eisenhower was commanding troops in Germany, he noted with considerable admiration the German autobahn system. It allowed for rapid travel, and Eisenhower even went so far as to assert that the autobahns allowed the Germans to stay in the war for two years longer than they otherwise might have been able to. In that context, the Eisenhower interstate system makes sense. Originally sold in no small part as a measure of military efficiency, the interstate system has become intertwined in the lives of most Americans.

But five decades on from that high-water mark of infrastructural ambition, American roads face problems. Only a few months after President Bush signed a six-year, $286.4 billion highway and public transit act, a report commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the federal Highway Trust Fund is drained of funds and that Congress must consider new revenue sources. The Eisenhower vision has long since been superceded by rancorous rows about the Alaskan “road to nowhere” and other projects that can be spun as ancillary to national purpose.

In a different time, these debates would not be happening. But as the Chamber of Commerce report indicates, the American highway system is in the midst of a severe funding crunch. Estimates are that the trust fund, financed by the federal gasoline tax, will take in just $231 billion over the six-year course of the act. It is likewise claimed that the highway portion of the fund would hit a zero cash balance in 2008, a year before the act expires.

According to the Chamber’s report, revenues from all levels of government will fall half a trillion dollars shy of what is needed just to maintain current pavement and bridge conditions and traffic levels through 2015, and a cool $1.1 trillion short of what is needed to improve the nation’s infrastructure. These figures assume that current prices for raw materials — concrete, steel and so forth — will hold, which, given the current rates of growth in Asia, may be an optimistic assumption. At a time when U.S. governmental spending faces myriad internal and external constraints, it is clear that we need to consider anew long-term ways to fund the highway system upon which we rely.

“Americans are spending more and more time stuck in traffic, and it’s time to break the gridlock,” said David Hirschmann, executive vice president of the National Chamber Foundation. “Current funding mechanisms are not providing the dollars our transportation system needs. Congress needs to implement fair funding mechanisms to ensure we have the resources to build our roads and public transportation in the future.”

The definition of fairness, though, is shifting. The Chamber’s report suggests that a move should be made from the current funding system, rooted in a gas tax, to mechanisms designed to more accurately address the toll vehicles take on roads.

Consider a couple of the more interesting possible remedies. The Chamber of Commerce suggests that owners of hybrid vehicles should pay a “vehicle fee” to defray the costs that their vehicles exact on roads. Likewise, it is advised that a “vehicle miles of travel” system, like that used in Oregon, be implemented, via GPS, to track the miles driven and that owners would pay a commensurate fee based on that number.

It is important to keep in mind that these are preliminary proposals, and that enactment of such may take a quite different form than that proposed. Low-income, working-class drivers, for example, may end up paying their fees on a need-based sliding scale. Likewise, at a time when American business faces global pressures, it is easy to imagine exemptions being extended to delivery and other concerns that would simply pass their costs on to the consumer.

There are no easy solutions to the highway-funding crisis, and certainly there are no perfect ones. But the time to act on these matters is 2006. The Chamber of Commerce study asserts that governments must begin planning now because “it will take at least 10 to 15 years of significant experimentation to develop mileage-based revenue systems that can be tailored technically and politically to the needs of the states and cities.’

Time is running short, and both the infrastructure and the long-term health of the American economy hang in the balance. The Chamber of Commerce proposals merit serious consideration, and it should happen as soon as possible.

A.G. Gancarski is a writer based in Jacksonville, Fla.

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