Finding the Courage for a Long-Term Transportation Funding Fix

Written by  Stephen E. Sandherr

In the 1993 film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character is forced to repeat the same day over and over until he finally crafts the perfect day. Sadly, anyone who has spent time advocating for infrastructure investments can relate to having to repeat the same task over and over again. That is because our elected officials in Washington and many state capitols are hesitant to put in place the kind of long-term funding solutions our industry needs.

What is particularly frustrating about construction’s Groundhog Day is that everyone involved in transportation planning has known about the need to put in place long-term funding fixes for years. Fuel consumption—the primary source of revenue for most transportation funds—has been declining steadily since the middle of the past decade, as the economy slowed and cars got more efficient. Meanwhile, maintenance needs for our aging infrastructure grow, while regulatory requirements have added considerably to the cost of new infrastructure. And when you have less revenue and higher costs, you get funding shortfalls.

Just as the funding problems are no secret, neither are the solutions: increasing revenue and cutting regulations and the costs that come with them. And while there has been some appetite to ease regulatory barriers, politicians from both parties keep looking for ways to avoid raising the gas tax or embracing alternative user fees like a vehicle miles tax. Public private partnerships, financing from programs like TIFIA, and infrastructure banks certainly have a role to play, but it took new U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx just a few days on the job to realize none of those options will ever be enough to make up for funding shortfalls.

If everyone knows what the problem is and how to solve it, why are we forced to repeat the same task of begging for money to maintain our roads and keep our bridges safe? The sad truth is that too many politicians prefer quick-term fixes that limit how much we ask of most constituents. They are too afraid to tell folks that our freeways aren’t actually free and that if we want to avoid traffic, travel safe roads and enjoy low cost goods, we all are going to have to pay a bit more.

No doubt these politicians fear that speaking the truth will cost them their next election. And while you can probably find examples where that is true, the fact is one of the most popular politicians in the country today—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—is so successful because of his extreme candor. And while he may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there is no getting around the fact that one of the secrets of Governor Christie’s success is that he shows enough respect for his constituents to level with them.

Beyond the fly-ins and in-district visits, the aggressive media campaigns, paid advertisements and creative social media efforts that AGC of America and chapters like the AGC of Texas continue to organize, we need to help our elected officials understand that their constituents can handle the truth. Washington never promised a quick revolution, Lincoln didn’t shy away from the costs of the Civil War, and FDR never downplayed the extent of the Depression. They are remembered today for the truths they told and the hard solutions they stuck to. Maybe that’s a lesson more of our elected officials need to consider before they kick the highway funding can down the—pothole-filled—road any further.

Stephen E. Sandherr is the chief executive officer of the Associated General
Contractors of America.

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