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Bills have been introduced into both the House and the Senate to dismantle the federal government’s role in interstate highways and leave that massive responsibility to individual states. Tea Party adherents and other conservatives are applauding this effort. The Interstate Highway System, they argue, was largely completed in the 1980s and local communities should provide their own transportation needs.
The new transportation bill proposed by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Representative Tom Graves (R-Ga.) however, tragically misses the mark when it comes to our national infrastructure needs. Their legislation would abandon the highway trust fund just when our roads and highways are most in need of reconstruction, repair and expansion.
Though many voters are demanding a check on big government, our elected officials need to remember that the Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution a federal obligation to build and maintain a national infrastructure. Localizing responsibility for the Interstate Highway System is a complete disconnect from how the world’s largest economy works.
Our interstate highways benefit the entire nation, as well as individual regions and states. For example, the port of Hampton Roads, Virginia, is our nation’s sixth-busiest harbor for all types of goods into and out of the country. From Hampton Roads, I-64 brings commerce to West Virginia and Kentucky. It connects with I-81 to Tennessee and the West, and with I-95 to the entire eastern seaboard. Without this national transportation system, what chance would residents of West Virginia, for example, have to export the $9 billion in trade they now send around the globe?
In addition, if the interstate system was largely completed 30 years ago, why should we continue to pay federal gas taxes to fund it?
Because highways wear out.
Much of our highway system was built in the 1950s and ’60s, with an estimated original lifespan of 50 to 60 years. As these roads reach that point, many need to be rebuilt from the substructure on up, something that can’t be done using local or state resources alone.
A hard reality is that New York State isn’t going to pay for highways through Utah, Nevada, Wyoming or Nebraska — even though those roads bring fresh produce from central California to the Empire State. Conversely, California isn’t going to pay for those same roads — though goods from Buffalo make their way to homes on the Pacific Coast.
One primary reason that the United States has a federal government is that the Founders realized that economic growth between states needed to be encouraged and facilitated, so that urban and rural areas would benefit alike. They were very clear about this when they wrote that the federal government has a constitutional obligation to support our national infrastructure and enable commerce across all states.
Localizing the Interstate Highway System would disproportionally harm small cities and rural areas, because large cities with larger economies have more access to the capital investment needed for large transportation projects.
Localization will create a disjointed system full of “have” and “have not” states. Ignoring the national nature of an interstate transportation system guarantees our economic and national transportation needs will go unmet.
Yet, we face a real crisis with the funding mechanism that pays for the investment, repair and revitalization of our highways. There is a projected $147 billion gap between highway revenue and spending over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and kicking responsibility to the states isn’t going to get the job done.
To meet this challenge, Congress needs to create a vigorous, functional system that brings together our national resources. Though Washington hasn’t done many things right lately, it has found a successful strategy in dealing with our transportation issues.
Recent waterways legislation is a template for commonsense transportation policy and can serve as a guide to cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. The waterways bill is currently in the final stages of becoming a law and meets the standards the American people are looking for: reform-minded legislation that allocates “smart-spending” and invests in our vital waterway systems.
In 2010, one out of four miles driven in the United States was on interstate highways. The system’s 47,000 miles binds our states into a national economy second to none in size, scope and productivity.
The system’s benefits are clear. In what other country of the world would a New York furniture company like Bush Industries have distribution centers on the same road, but 2,343 miles apart — in both Erie, Pennsylvania, and Reno, Nevada? Only the U.S. Interstate Highway System makes that possible.
Jeff Loveng is a former chief of staff to Representative Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and is the president and chairman of America’s Infrastructure Alliance.
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