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U.S. News & World Report: Ray LaHood: Just a Start

By Ray LaHood

June 9, 2017

Relying solely on public-private partnerships to improve our infrastructure is like believing that a train can run without tracks. Public-private partnerships are important for saving our nation's infrastructure, but they're not enough. We need federal, direct funding, or our infrastructure will continue collapsing, causing irreparable damage to cities across the nation.

Public-private partnerships are often helpful, but they represent a miniscule part of infrastructure spending – not nearly enough to rely on for our nation's needs. The state of our nation's infrastructure is dire, and we need several forms of funding to adequately address our problems.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the cumulative neglect of our infrastructure has resulted in a D+ grade. Between now and 2025, our nation needs more than $2 trillion in infrastructure investment beyond what we are already spending to close the gap. There are nearly 60,000 structurally deficient bridges in the United States, and 20 percent of America's major roads are in poor condition, leading to severe safety implications.

What's more, our roads are getting worse by the day. The United States has set a new record for vehicle miles traveled, driving over 3.2 trillion miles in 2016, an increase of 70 billion miles from 2015. Congestion has been on the rise, and Americans waste incredible amounts of time sitting in traffic. According to the Urban Mobility Scorecard, the average American commuter wasted 42 hours sitting in traffic in 2014, up from 16 hours in 1982.

The collapse of the Oroville Dam in California this spring was another unfortunate example that deteriorating infrastructure can quickly become a devastating crisis if it's not maintained and modernized. We waited until it was too late, and the troubled Oroville Dam will now cost $275 million to repair. Public-private partnerships can help alleviate costs, but they are one piece of the solution.

Infrastructure investments need to happen now, and public-private partnerships are just a start.

There are a number of additional solutions that the federal government must approve to solve our infrastructure crisis.

First, we must raise the federal gas tax, the primary source of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund. The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon has not been increased in 24 years, meaning we're supporting our roads and bridges using outdated budgets. In the decades since we last increased the gas tax, it has lost a third of its purchasing power. Highway maintenance needs, on the other hand, haven't changed at all. Twenty-two states have raised their gas taxes since 2013, and our federal government has yet to follow their lead.

Next, there also must be a strong working relationship between states and the federal government. The federal government must trust and challenge mayors and governors, on a regional basis, to understand what they need for their communities and to grant them the flexibility to carry out needed projects. We need increased levels of commitment at every level of government if we want to maintain competitiveness in the rapidly shifting and accelerating global economy.

Public-private partnerships are integral, but they can't be relied on. We need to take comprehensive actions to address our crumbling and congested roads and bridges. From establishing a national infrastructure bank that will attract private investment for public-private partnerships, to increasing the federal gas tax and establishing tolls, there are ways to stop our infrastructure from further deteriorating.

This country can't properly function without roads, rails, bridges, runways, dams and ports that work. Infrastructure fosters mobility and connects us across cities, states and coasts. It keeps our economy going and keeps our families safe. When infrastructure fails, it leads to crisis.

Until now, partisan gridlock has prevented comprehensive action on addressing our infrastructure challenges. This needs to change before it's too late. Public-private partnerships can be a part of the solution, but they can't be the entire solution.

Ray LaHood is a former secretary of transportation and the current co-chairman of the bipartisan advocacy group Building America’s Future.