GUEST COMMENTARY: Unite to rebuild infrastructure for Alaska and the nation

  • Using the largest crane in Alaska, Orion Marine Contractors and Knik Construction are seen working on a Parks Highway road expansion between Church Road and Pitman Road to construct a 225-foot single span bridge over active railroad tracks. (Photo/Courtesy/Orion Marine Contractors)

“Gridlock.” “Dysfunction.” “Stalemate.”

In recent years, all of these words have been used in reference to Washington – especially after the 2018 elections created a divided Congress. It’s true that the partisan divide has oftentimes made it difficult to get things done, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

This Congress, Republicans and Democrats from districts across the country have an opportunity to find common ground on an issue important to all of us: infrastructure.

As former chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, I understand how important strong roads, ports, and bridges are to my fellow members and their constituents. Robust infrastructure is essential to a strong economy, and when the economy is booming, we all benefit.

Improving America’s infrastructure could be the shot in the arm needed to take an already booming economy into overdrive. According to the Council of Economic Advisers, the economy could grow at an additional 3 percent if Congress comes together to pass major infrastructure legislation. However, any successful bipartisan infrastructure bill will need to address a range of issues currently facing our airports, harbors, and roads.

First and foremost, Congress must come to an agreement on funding and find a way to fix the Federal Highway Trust Fund for the long-term. The Highway Trust Fund is in danger of becoming totally insolvent, and if you’ve seen the condition of some of Alaska’s highways – including the Alaska-Canada highway – you know how critical it is to stabilize this important funding source. Recent Congressional Budget Office estimates report that the Federal Highway Trust Fund will run out of money by 2022, making reform even more urgent.

If we’re going to fix the Highway Trust Fund, we must be willing to consider all available options. Revenues from the federal gas tax have been steadily decreasing as our automobiles become more fuel efficient, and there are more electric vehicles in use, and dollars don’t buy as much as they once did.

Just a few years ago, the federal gas tax collected $39 billion in revenue, but needed to support $52 billion in program commitments. The imbalance between revenue collection and highway spending is unsustainable, and only makes it more difficult for Congress to make progress on delivering the infrastructure that America needs.

The most obvious solution to this problem is to simply raise the gas tax and adjust it for inflation. However, this simply wouldn’t generate enough revenue as cars are less reliant on gasoline than ever before. Another suggested solution is to initiate some type of user fee or vehicle-miles-traveled, or VMT, tax, which has seen some success in various states that have started pilot programs to test the viability of this solution.

Methods to administer such a program on a nationwide scale are untested, and it would be important to ensure that constituents in rural states such as Alaska are not disproportionately affected by a user fee or VMT tax. Regardless of the method used, the fact of the matter is that both Republicans and Democrats want to fix the Federal Highway Trust Fund, and for the sake of the constituents who sent us here, we need to get it done.

Rapidly-advancing technology is also improving lives across the world, and Congress should be prepared to not only harness this new technology to improve our infrastructure, but to develop a regulatory approach that keeps Americans safe, but doesn’t hamper innovation or further progress.

The promise of companies like Amazon making unmanned deliveries via drone, or Tesla producing self-driving cars represents a new frontier in infrastructure and commerce, but also raises new safety concerns. In any new infrastructure effort, Congress must resist the urge to overregulate these technologies and instead opt for a light-touch approach that finds a regulatory balance while protecting public safety.

Another focus that a potential bipartisan infrastructure package must also address is the lengthy permitting and project delivery process that has left so many projects in limbo. Time is money, and implementing oversight and looking for ways to eliminate unnecessary delays saves hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

Environmental impact statements – though needed – can cause unnecessary delays, and create cost overruns that threaten entire infrastructure projects. President Trump and congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle must come together to reform the permitting process to better streamline project delivery while still protecting our environment.

Project management is vital for the efficient completion of large infrastructure projects and if we are serious about putting together a robust infrastructure package, management standards must be considered in the legislation to ensure taxpayer dollars are not wasted.

As Dean of the House, I’ve been fortunate to play a role in major, bipartisan wins for Alaska and our country. I firmly believe that this divided Congress has the opportunity to reverse the trend of crumbling roads and bridges, and finally get major infrastructure legislation passed.

This year let’s finally break the gridlock, lose the “dysfunctional” label, and send an infrastructure bill to the President that our constituents can be proud of. Our communities and our economy depend on it.

Rep. Don Young is the longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives and submitted this column to mark infrastructure week May 13-20.

Updated: 
05/14/2019 - 11:08am

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