Clock is ticking on infrastructure funding

Next Tuesday, St. Patrick's Day, could be remembered as an important milestone for the future of the nation's crumbling infrastructure -- in particular the roads, bridges and other ground transportation services that millions of Americans rely on daily.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing March 17 on reauthorizing the federal surface transportation programs that are scheduled to expire at the end of May.

For decades, funding for the repair and maintenance of the nation's roads was covered by the federal Highway Trust Fund, which imposes a gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. But that tax rate hasn't be raised in 22 years, and analysts say it hasn't kept up with modern construction costs and the newer, more fuel-efficient cars on the road. For the past several years, meanwhile, Congress has funded infrastructure through a series of temporary patches.

The Department of Transportation has warned that the Highway Trust Fund is running out of money. And in a hearing last month, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called upon the Republican-controlled House to pass a long-term infrastructure funding measure.

"Our country is too great to allow our infrastructure to fall apart," The Hill magazine quotes Foxx as commenting.

"We must do something," he continued. "At a time when we should be building more, we're building less. Instead of saying 'build, build, build,' Congress has been saying 'stop.' "

Foxx also spent part of February on a four-day bus tour to five states and the District of Columbia, to drum up public support for a long-term transportation bill.

The Secretary's calls have been echoed by interest groups such as AAA, the American Trucking Associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Those three organizations issued a joint letter in January addressed to Congress calling on lawmakers to raise the Highway Trust Fund's federal fuel users fee, urging lawmakers to "fully fund the roads and bridges that are the backbone of American mobility and competitiveness."

Also in January, House Speaker John Boehner told the CBS program "60 Minutes" he believes tax reform, rather than tax increases, could lead to the funds needed for a long-term highway bill.

A recent analysis underscores how little the U.S. has invested in infrastructure development. David Wessel, director of the Brookings Institution's Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy, found that funding for infrastructure was around $9.8 billion in 2013, or just 0.06 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product. By comparison, in the mid-1960s infrastructure spending averaged around 1 percent of GDP.

This lack of investment is happening at a time when the federal government could borrow money at low interest rates for long-term investments, he notes.

"There is good reason to worry about the size of the debt we are bequeathing to the next generation. The U.S. government has made promises to pay future health and retirement benefits that exceed the tax revenues the current tax code will produce," he wrote. "But we won't be doing the next generation any favors by bequeathing crumbling asphalt and leaky water and sewer pipes -- and a huge bill for deferred maintenance."