Now that the president has released his principles on infrastructure, it is up to him, as a builder who understands the role of infrastructure in our economy, to continue to lead on this issue and make it clear to the American people why such investments are so important.
Congress has the responsibility of drafting legislation that will make these real and meaningful investments for the nation. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will spearhead legislative efforts in the House, in coordination with the work of other committees. Our work on this critical legislation is already underway, guided by three core principles: An infrastructure plan must be bipartisan, it must be fiscally responsible and it must be forward leaning.
First of all, we have to work together. Only a bipartisan bill can clear the Senate and get to the president’s desk. Fortunately, we have already proven this is possible. Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members have provided an example of bipartisanship since I became chairman five years ago, and I look forward to working with my colleagues, including Ranking Member Peter DeFazio, on this critical effort.
Beyond the political math, infrastructure shouldn’t be viewed through a partisan lens. There are no Republican roads or Democratic airports. Personal ideology has no bearing on whether your train is on time or if the milk makes it to the shelf at your local grocery store. A modern, efficient transportation system benefits urban and rural America and addresses regional concerns while having a national impact.
We must also balance our needs with being fiscally responsible. An infrastructure plan must be paid for. It will take involvement at all levels of government, leveraging nonfederal dollars, tapping into more private-sector resources, streamlining project approvals and more. But as always, the federal government must play a vital role in investing in our transportation network.
Adam Smith, often called the “father of modern economics,” asserted the federal duty in the “erection and maintenance of the public works which facilitate the commerce of any country” in his book, “The Wealth of Nations,” in turn inspiring our Founders’ drafting of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. Congress cannot “devolve” or abdicate this constitutional responsibility to the states; helping to build our national transportation system is a partnership that involves both federal and state governments.
As a conservative, I firmly believe you should pay for what you use and not rely on deficit spending to take care of your needs. As President Ronald Reagan said, in support of increasing investment in the nation’s roads and bridges, “Good tax policy decrees that wherever possible, a fee for a service should be assessed against those who directly benefit from that service.” In keeping with this conservative principle, we need to be realistic and have an honest conversation about the sustainability of the Highway Trust Fund because the next Trust Fund shortfall looms in 2020. Failing to fix the Trust Fund will only result in Congress again turning to deficit spending to cover the shortfall.
Unlike taxes collected by the federal government, the Highway Trust Fund is sustained by user fees collected at the gas pump that are exclusively dedicated to highway and transit project investment — it is no slush fund for other unrelated government programs. It’s a social contract: If you use the road, you pay for its upkeep. Unfortunately, because the user fee has remained unchanged for the last 25 years, the Highway Trust Fund no longer accurately reflects the current value of the dollar, the state of the transportation industry or how people are getting from here to there.
For example, based on the value of the dollar in 1993, when the user fee was last adjusted, the user fee has lost approximately 40 percent of its purchasing power. Greater fuel efficiency and growth in hybrid vehicle usage mean that highway users are paying less into the system per mile travelled. Furthermore, electric car drivers don’t pay a dime into the Highway Trust Fund.
The current path is not sustainable. There is no one silver bullet solution that addresses all of our challenges and we must consider any fiscally responsible option for real infrastructure investment.
I appreciate the concern expressed by some in Washington about raising a user fee after passing sweeping tax reform. Some argue that paying at the pump constitutes a “regressive” user fee that most impacts drivers from rural areas. However, what they don’t say is that this actually provides a progressive benefit. For example, in my state of Pennsylvania, for every $1 paid at the pump, very rural areas receive $1.70 back to help build and maintain their infrastructure.
The reality is that the country desperately needs investments in infrastructure and we have to find a way to pay for it. We are elected to Congress to tackle the big challenges facing the nation and make the tough decisions to preserve our general welfare. Just because the challenges we face are difficult should not lead us to inaction.
Success requires Congress to work together on a fiscally responsible, forward-looking, bipartisan plan, and it also requires continued presidential leadership. If the president continues to make infrastructure a priority, as he has since before entering the White House, I believe he will join the ranks of our other great Republican infrastructure presidents, like Presidents Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan.
• Rep. Bill Shuster, Pennsylvania Republican, is Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.