As majority owners and operators of transportation infrastructure, counties across America are using Infrastructure Week to spotlight our efforts to address the dire needs of local infrastructure and underscore how we can partner with the federal government to modernize our transportation systems.
While there are many reasons to remain hopeful, we must face the fact that our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling and will deteriorate even more if federal and state investments continue to stagnate or decline.
Counties build and maintain the largest share — 46 percent — of America’s public roadways. We own nearly 40 percent of the nation’s bridges. We are involved in a third of the nation’s airports and support 78 percent of public transportation systems.
We are making major investments in infrastructure, but we can’t go it alone because our local tax bases are too limited. Rural counties often lack the resources necessary to make transformational investments in infrastructure. Counties in nearly every state face strict limitations on how property tax revenue — the main general revenue source for counties — and many are prohibited by state laws from collecting local sales taxes, which further impairs our ability to address infrastructure needs. Our transportation systems serve the entire nation, which is why we need a reliable federal partner.
Let’s look at the problem. A fully loaded semi-trailer does as much damage to a road as 9,600 cars, and these trucks (and cars) travel our local roads every day. In 2017, the Federal Highway Administration estimated that roughly 54,500 bridges in this country, including many that are locally owned, were structurally deficient and in urgent need of repair.
Counties are repairing the damage but need more tools at our disposal. The most recent federal tax overhaul further tied our hands by eliminating the advance refunding bonds, a vital financing tool that saved counties billions of dollars that we could then reinvest in other projects. Counties call on Congress to restore advance refunding bonds so we can continue to meet the needs of our communities.
We are reliable partners, doing our part. Counties invest $122 billion annually in building infrastructure and maintaining and operating public works. We invest another $21.6 billion annually in sewage and waste management. We also invest $60 billion annually in construction of public facilities and other institutions residents rely on every day.
State and local ballot initiatives have been an effective tool. Voters in Broward County, Florida. passed an initiative allowing a new 1 cent sales tax, which will raise more than $15 billion for infrastructure needs. Hillsborough County, Florida. will raise more than $8 billion the same way. In Los Angeles County, 71 percent of voters approved a transportation sales tax that will generate $120 billion over four decades. Voters recognized the need for local investment and chose to act. However, not every local ballot initiative will pass, and some projects are too large for the local tax base to fund.
This is a nonpartisan problem that calls for nonpartisan solutions. Even with a divided government and what can seem like gridlock in Washington, infrastructure might just be the one issue leaders from both political parties can agree on.
President Trump and 12 congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, recently met to discuss the size and scope of a potential legislative vehicle, with Democrats proposing a $2 trillion package. Though it remains unclear how lawmakers would pay for such a program, counties stand ready to work with President Trump and Congress to forge pathways forward.
America’s counties urge Congress and the administration to strengthen the federal-state-local partnership in infrastructure. We call on them to preserve local decision-making, direct federal investments to local governments and streamline the regulatory landscape to save money and ensure strong environmental stewardship. A user-pay approach should continue to be the cornerstone of federal transportation funding, and federal policy should provide counties with the flexibility to use additional financing tools.
Consistent federal investment through a new, long-term infrastructure package or surface transportation reauthorization, developed in consultation with federal, state and local partners, would allow counties to address much-needed infrastructure improvements.
We are ready to pursue transformational infrastructure improvements where the rubber meets the road. Counties are connecting people and places — from expanding access to the information superhighway to building roads and highways for our children and grandchildren. At the county level, we are investing in America’s future, and we urge our local, state and federal partners to buckle up and join us for the ride.
• Matthew Chase is the executive director of the National Association of Counties.