Looking for an oasis of bipartisan comity? A top-shelf group of public officials, corporate leaders and lobbyists will be attending a "transportation infrastructure summit" today. Though coming from different parties and representing different interests, they will echo each other on one basic truism: America must invest more in its infrastructure if it expects to grow its economy, lower unemployment and regain its competitive footing globally.
The big question will be how much acknowledgement summit leaders will give the big, smelly elephant in the room: the Republican tea-party obstructionists in Congress.
The one thing that big labor and big business can agree on is the critical need to close the wide gap — in excess of $70 billion a year and growing rapidly, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers – between what government at all levels spends on our surface transportation network and what we need to spend to repair what we have and accommodate future growth. Labor sees jobs (an average of 18,000 new jobs for every $1 billion increase in infrastructure spending, according to an Alliance for American Manufacturing study); business sees speedier and more cost-effective commerce. And yet, Congress has been unable to agree on anything more than short-term steps that aren't even up to maintaining the status quo, much less making things better for beleaguered commuters or businesses trying to move their goods to customers faster.
Congress is supposed to be tackling transportation reauthorization bills roughly every six years; long-term funding decisions enable governments to comfortably make decisions on projects that customarily take years to complete. But last year, Congress was only able to agree on a two-year plan. That means Congress is due to revisit the transportation funding issue in 2014.
When Congress does decide to roll up its sleeves to debate how to address this issue, it faces a fiscal crisis of its own making. The federal gasoline tax that funds the federal share of highway and public transportation projects hasn't been increased by Congress since the early 1990s.
At the same time, more drivers with fuel-efficient cars mean fewer trips to the gas pump and, consequently, less in gasoline taxes. The result is an almost $20 billion annual shortfall in the funding available from the gasoline tax to cover the meager level of authorized spending.
A common-sense approach would combine an increase in the gasoline tax to account for inflation since the 1990s and complementary sources of funding that recognize the new reality of hybrids, electric vehicles, natural gas buses and trucks, and fuel-cell vehicles.
Instead, last week two tea-party Republicans, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, introduced a bill that would cut the gasoline tax by 80 percent. Their bill would mean that states would be largely left to their own devices, with only a tiny block grant from Washington. The federal government would have a dramatically diminished role in maintaining a truly national system and in keeping critical projects in urban areas from getting short shrift for political reasons in conservative, rural-dominated state capitals.
Though this bill has the imprimatur of the tea-party bellwether Heritage Action, it is unlikely to win majority support in the House. But it helps set the tenor of the debate for House Republicans: No increases in revenues – even a tax that hasn't been adjusted for inflation in 20 years – and no expansive federal role in ensuring that our transportation projects serve national interests as well as state and community interests.
Meanwhile, other major countries are making commitments to shore up their infrastructure networks. The Economist has reported that China is investing 9 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure and Europe's infrastructure spending is averaging 5 percent of its GDP. The United States spends less than 2.5 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, less than Canada's 3 percent. It's penny-pinching that costs us big in dollars and jobs: the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates a loss of $3.1 trillion in GDP and 3.5 million jobs by 2020 if the current investment shortfall continues.
The ability to move goods and people through the country in an efficient, environmentally sound way is a quintessential national priority. It deserves holistic national solutions: not just more efficient highways and bridges but vast improvements in public transit and high-speed rail.
(Recently I was on an Acela express train riding from Washington to Boston. The seats were sold out in Washington and the train remained full for virtually the entire trip. The demand for convenient and fast surface transportation options between major cities is clearly there and, on the Northeast corridor at least, exceeds the supply. The Republican governors and members of Congress who have been ridiculing federal spending on transportation projects – that includes you, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – deserve to be hooted off the public stage.)
The irony, of course, is that the members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce bought and paid for the very House and Senate members who now stand in the way of the infrastructure agenda the Chamber and its business allies support. Do they now call out those elephants in the room and order them to leave in order to make room for political leaders and activists who see the value of a rebuild-America campaign that creates jobs, revitalizes our public assets and sets the economy up for long-term growth?
Today's summit is not likely to answer that question. But there is one thing that will force an answer: continued agitation from working-class people to keep the national economic conversation focused on jobs, growth and the rebuilding of America, not deficits and budget cuts.