July 17, 2014 at 1:00 am

Let's build America's highway to success

A strong highway trust fund could build up Michigan's roads. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Once again, Congress needs to act — this time to renew the Highway Trust Fund, created back in 1956 to help construct and fund our nation’s roadways, bridges, tunnels and sidewalks.

The trust fund has been a complete success, but it’s about to run out of money soon if Congress fails to act.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders summarized our highway challenge: “32 percent of America’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and 42 percent of (our) major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually.”

Our nation’s infrastructure needs repair.

Fixing our roads and bridges should be a bipartisan affair.

Dwight Eisenhower was a young major in 1919 when he was assigned to a transcontinental Army convoy to “test vehicles and dramatize the need for improved roads.”

What Ike saw (at what turned out to be an average speed of 5 miles per hour) stayed with him until he was president.

In Detroit’s Cadillac Square, in 1954, Eisenhower set forth his goal of an interstate highway system that “will take this nation out of its antiquated shackles of secondary roads. … It will be a nation that is going ahead every day — with our population increasing at five every minute, the expanding horizon is one that staggers the imagination.”

Some 60 years later, our nation’s highway system needs repair and maintenance — and expansion — if we want to keep moving “every day” toward Eisenhower’s vision of an “expanding horizon” of potential and achievement.

According to the nonpartisan Pew Research firm, “Nearly half the states (24) received a third or more of their highway and transit funding from federal sources.” The government pours more than $50 billion into highway maintenance and construction yearly.

It’s a good deal for the states: The majority get back in federal dollars multiple times the amounts that they send.

Pew reports that Alaska gets back $7 for every dollar it contributes to the federal Highway Trust Fund. Vermont gets $5 for every $1 sent. North Dakota and Montana get $3 for every $1.

Only four states — Michigan, Texas, Indiana and South Carolina —receive less than what they send, and that is only pennies less — from two cents to five cents less.

The Congressional Budget Office has reported to Congress that the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money if Congress doesn’t act.

Unfortunately, Congress has been reluctant to provide the funds.

Federal gasoline taxes used to fully fund the Highway Trust Fund.

But because the federal gas tax is not pegged to inflation, its purchasing power has decreased 48 percent. Cars with greater fuel efficiency also mean less revenue.

Raising gasoline taxes — not done since 1993 — is one option.

What’s worse — much, much worse — is that Congress has refused to provide long-term funding.

With strong bipartisan support, this is clearly something Congress can and must do before its members leave Washington for their summer vacations.

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist.
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