A higher gas tax and new fees for alternative-fuel vehicles are among the ways America can pay for a major overhaul of its outdated infrastructure — and create jobs in the process, says a bipartisan group that includes U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty.
“This will put people to work, and everybody knows we need to do it,” said Esty, a three-term Democrat who co-chairs the U.S. House Problems Solvers Caucus Infrastructure Working Group. “We think there is narrow window of a couple months to do this, so we are going to push very hard to get it done.”
Esty is referring to recommendations in the group’s new report that include modernizing not only highways and bridges but also power plants, water systems and broadband networks - especially in rural America.
Although most infrastructure money comes from the states, the House members’ recommendations were welcomed by one Connecticut group for putting the focus on the country’s future.
“Taxes can’t always be an evil word,” said Kevin Maloney, the communications director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “The state of Connecticut is still very fiscally challenged, so we have to look at alternative ways to fund infrastructure projects.”
As anyone who’s endured Fairfield County rush hour knows, Connecticut is at an infrastructure crossroads. For years, the state has delayed upgrades to roads and bridges while millions of dollars in dedicated transportation funds are spent by the legislature to close gaps in the budget.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had proposed a $100 billion transportation plan over the next three decades, but that initiative was undercut earlier this month when the outgoing Democrat suspended $4 billion in road improvement projects in greater Danbury and across the state.
At the same time, the nation has fallen behind on repairs, in part because Congress has raided infrastructure funds to solve its own budget problems and in part because the 18 cent-a-gallon gasoline tax has not been raised since 1993 and no longer pays for the nation’s annual highway needs.
Unless Congress makes changes, the federal Highway Trust Fund will be $2 trillion in the hole by 2025, Esty’s report says.
The good news is that if one issue unites Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C., it’s infrastructure, Esty said.
President Donald Trump made headlines last year when he proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure program over 10 years. He has said in published reports that he would consider raising the gas tax to pay for it. Trump plans to unveil details of that plan next month.
Esty said a fully funded federal highway program would help Connecticut.
“If we appropriately fund it, that will help Connecticut because there will be more money for projects,” Esty said. “The federal match for highways generally is 75 to 80 percent.”
The state Department of Transportation had not reviewed Esty’s report by Friday.
“We appreciate the congresswoman’s interest in transportation,” DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said. “It is important to have this focus, particularly with the issue we face with the highway special transportation fund.”
A Republican member of Esty’s working group, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, tells the story of a bridge in his district in southeast Pennsylvania.
Each day the school bus stops at the bridge to let the children out. The bus then crosses the bridge empty, since any more weight on the bridge would be dangerous. The children cross on foot, and then climb back into the bus.
“That story underscores the kind of issues we are all facing,” Esty said. “That is not what a great country does.”
Esty and the Republican co-chair of the infrastructure group, Rep. John Katko of New York, spent four months analyzing the practices surrounding federal infrastructure and looking for areas where there might be support from the White House and both parties.
In addition to new user fees and regulatory reform, the group said that government accountability was vital to building a 21st century infrastructure.
Specifically, provisions need to be passed to ensure that money raised by new user fees is spent on highway improvements, Esty said.
“You cannot collect user fees and then not use them for what you collected them for - that just erodes public confidence and makes it hard to get support for the revenue you need to have,” Esty said. “It is very important to have public confidence.”