In spite of the government shutdown, infrastructure is still on the minds of people in Washington, and some dare to hope that federal legislation to support repairs and construction of bridges, highways, and other facilities that keep the country moving will come out of Congress this year.
One is Jim Tymon, the new executive director of the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, who on Jan. 8 briefed reporters on the organization’s priorities and goals for 2019. He took over on Jan. 1 after five years in AASHTO staff positions and previously serving as a congressional aide specializing in transportation.
The tax-cut bill passed last year “has placed new emphasis on deficit spending and how it can be sustained,” Tymon said. “Once we get through the shutdown, I think it’s one of the first issues the Democrats want to tackle.
“My experience is that after we get through these trying times, Democrats and Republicans will get together and try to find common ground and show that they’re not as dysfunctional as they seem to be” because “transportation has traditionally united the parties," he added.
AASHTO continues to advocate for the federal Highway Trust Fund, he said, and wants badly needed updates to the motor fuel taxes that send money into it, though at a diminishing rate due to changes in vehicle types and simple inflation that reduces the dollar's buying power. A number of states have increased highway use taxes because they see funding as investment in their economies, which Tymon said he finds encouraging.
“But that’s no excuse for the federal government to walk away from their responsibilities,” he said. “The gas [fuel] tax supporting the Highway Trust Fund has not increased in more than 25 years. Several times it has been bailed out by general revenues, but that can’t go on forever. We’re spending $10 billion to $15 billion more annually than is taken in.
“The Highway Trust Fund is still viable,” Tymon continued. “It goes back 60 years. It’s known, it works, and is an efficient way to collect funds and distribute them to states that use them.”
But changes are needed to compensate for more fuel-efficient cars and trucks that use less gasoline and diesel, and whose owners therefore pay less into the trust fund, and for electric vehicles and those that burn natural gas and other alternative fuels that is either not taxed or taxed at a lower rate.
Though part of the federal government is shut down, “the trust fund is still working and money is flowing to the states,” he said. “That means that highway departments don’t necessarily have to pull the plug on projects that they have underway now. But they don’t have full access to the money that they have planned on for 2019, and they’re unsure about next year. I hope we get a full year appropriated for 2019.
“Federal staff that manages disbursement programs are not on the job during the shutdown,” he explained, so the flow of money will soon cease.
“We’re seeking reliable funding,” Tyron continued. “Unreliability is creating havoc for states in their planning.”
Support for the trust fund and other surface transportation programs is among AASHTO’s top priorities for 2019, he stated. Innovations for funding, including public-private partnerships are examples. And the organization wants to assist state transportation departments in finding qualified staffers to replace engineers and other staffers who are retiring – “workforce development,” he calls this.
State transportation departments are becoming development agencies that are active in areas like driverless vehicles and new materials, and how to build “resilient infrastructure” to deal with 100-year events that occur much more often.
“You don’t want to rebuild infrastructure and have it destroyed by another 100-year event only two years after you’ve rebuilt it,” he said.