The Biden administration and other D.C. politicians say they will turn to infrastructure after completing the next round of COVID-19 stimulus. The rationale is clear: highways like those in Illinois and across the U.S., not to mention bridges, airports, water systems, levees and more need revitalization. In Illinois, for instance, the collective infrastructure system grades out to a C-minus according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
But achieving progress – at least through Congress – is challenging and requires more than lofty rhetoric.
At the core of this discussion is fundamental point: the bill passed out of the U.S. House in 2020 — The INVEST in America Act, or HR 2 — is too partisan and too chock full of unrelated policies.
Only if House Democrats rewrite their legislation to garner broad, bipartisan support, could D.C. policymakers notch a meaningful win for all of America. As a top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Congressman Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) will play a key role in brokering such legislation.
In short, Rep. Davis has a small window to convince Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) to address infrastructure in a bipartisan fashion. For the sake of U.S. consumers, Congress should present legislation committed to the core needs at hand — surface transportation networks and funding — while avoiding any number of divisive issues.
Recent analysis by Consumer Action for a Strong Economy provides some straightforward recommendations.
First, Congress must recommit to funding highway maintenance reforms that might return us to a sustainable user-pay model, making significant progress towards a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee to fund roads. This system would rely on additional infrastructure for monitoring and levying the tax that is not yet in place, but it has several critical benefits. The most noteworthy point is that it would not be affected by increasing fuel efficiency or the prevalence of hybrid and electric cars. Another, spelled out in a recent Congressional Budget Office report, is that a VMT fee could be adjusted based on factors such as vehicle configuration, weight, location, purpose, and other factors, allowing vehicles causing the greatest infrastructure damage to support their share of infrastructure costs without imposing an unsustainable burden on commuters or other drivers.
While still years away, experts believe a transition is feasible and sorely needed.
Next, Congress should avoid controversial subjects that diverge from core challenges at hand. For instance, previous legislation created several new grant programs, rather than working to improve others. It also devoted endless energy and resources to areas best handled by other committees and bills, such as housing and energy.
Additionally, the 2020 House legislation went out of its way to appease favored stakeholders in imposing new regulations, rather than letting the market and common sense drive many decisions. The rail title of the bill — which featured an abundance of operational mandates — was especially problematic.
Last, Congress must commit itself to transparency in this process. With an expectation that earmarks will return, infrastructure legislation should not become a way to disproportionately shovel dollars to congressional districts. Improving our highways, bridges and the like should be equitable — not isolated to those holding leadership roles. Rep. Davis understands this full well.
Infrastructure is important and well-positioned for bipartisan success. Let’s hope Democrats will work with Rep. Davis and the rest of Congress to notch a win for Americans.
Matthew Kandrach is president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market advocacy organization.