The Crumbling State of the Union

As we prepare for President Obama to give the annual State of the Union Address a little more than 24 hours from now, it is an appropriate time for us to take a hard look at the literal, physical state of our union. The bonds that keep us together as a country -- the roads, tunnels, bridges, pipes, sewers -- are degrading at an incredible pace. If we do not act now to maintain and repair our infrastructure, we will face much higher costs in the future, not just for the country, but for families on a daily basis.

The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that $3.6 trillion in infrastructure investment is needed by 2020, and that our declining transportation system could result in the loss of 876,000 jobs by then. That's 876,000 Americans who could be at work, providing for their families and pumping money back into the economy, but won't be unless we gather the political courage to address this problem now.

The current transportation funding bill, MAP-21, expires in eight months. When it does, the Highway Trust Fund will need an additional $15 billion a year in order to maintain current levels of funding, which are already woefully inadequate. By 2023, cumulative shortfalls will total more than $126 billion and overall transportation funding will be reduced by over 30 percent. Failure to address this funding crisis is shortsighted and dangerous.

The solution to this downward spiral comes in the form of what the Washington Post calls the "unassailable principle that those who use the roads should pay for them." I have introduced legislation to increase the federal gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993, and has lost nearly two-thirds of its purchasing power. My bill, the UPDATE Act, would raise the gas tax by 15 cents over a three year period and index it to inflation. This should be the last gas tax increase ever, and provide us the time we need research and implement a sustainable system, not based on gallons of fuel consumed, which is increasingly unfair and inefficient. A vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee would appear to be the best option to charge for road use in the future.

We must also address our deteriorating water infrastructure, which ASCE gave a grade of "D" in its last report card (even worse than the "D+" for transportation). While it would take over $9.3 billion a year to maintain the clean-water infrastructure, funding has averaged just over $1.25 billion a year since 2000. I introduced HR 3582, which would provide a small, deficit-neutral, protected source of revenue to help states and local government replace, repair, and rehabilitate critical wastewater treatment facilities. It would create a voluntary labeling and contributory system, which businesses that rely on a clean water source could adopt. It's a step in the right direction, would leverage other funds needed repairs and improvements, and wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime.

Each of our coins reads "E Pluribus Unum," meaning "From Many, One." This is not an empty phrase, or even a reaffirmation of American excellence. It is the simple observation that we are stronger together than apart. I anticipate that the president will speak in broad terms tomorrow about what binds us as a country, and how we must strive toward greater national unity. I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. In so doing, I hope he specifically encourages Congress and the American public to repair, renew, and rebuild our infrastructure. It is vital to ensuring a strong state of the union in the realist, most important ways possible.