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Invest in Our Transportation Network to Drive the Economy Forward | Commentary

By Paul Yarossi Investing in transportation creates jobs for those hardworking Americans who build the infrastructure we rely on to live productive, fulfilling lives. These jobs are opportunities for thousands of American workers to earn a paycheck, gain skills and advance their careers in a challenging and rewarding field. Today, many folks begin on construction sites as laborers and leave as equipment operators, managers or other positions of increasing rank.  

The transportation infrastructure these individuals build greases the wheel of our broader economy. Our transportation network allows us to deliver products and services to market, creating even more jobs. It’s how we get to baseball games and weekend barbecues, make it to work and respond to natural disasters.  

These are just some of the many reasons why the returns on transportation investment are so critical. In fact, Moody’s estimates every dollar spent on infrastructure generates a $1.44 increase in GDP.  

Yet, our country now is at an inflection point. We have to decide if we are willing to make the $57 trillion investment in infrastructure by 2030 that McKinsey & Co. estimates is needed for us to remain competitive in the global marketplace. These investments would revitalize our aging roads and bridges, and they would allow us to add capacity to fulfill the needs of the expected 400 million Americans who will live in the U.S. by 2040.  

Given the return of investment of transportation infrastructure investments, it’s not surprising that the public is in favor of making them. A recent survey conducted by HNTB found that more than nine in ten (93 percent) Americans agree that it is important for the U.S. to create construction jobs, and nearly half (48 percent) believe this is extremely crucial. And, four in five (80 percent) Americans would shell out an average of $11 each month if it went directly toward creating thousands of jobs in the U.S.  

Even with broad public support for vital investments in our future, our congressional leaders have a challenging job ahead as they navigate the federal surface transportation reauthorization process on Capitol Hill. They do so under mounting pressure, as the Highway Trust Fund approaches another cliff this May.  

The Highway Trust Fund was funded in 2012 as part of MAP-21, or the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. MAP-21 does not address the fundamental cause of our infrastructure investment problem, which is the decline in purchasing power of the gas tax. Today, the gas tax purchases just 39 percent of what it did in 1993 when it was last raised.  

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association in Washington, D.C., recently proposed a 15-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase, which could be partially offset by a $90 annual tax rebate to middle and lower income tax filers. Funding our transportation needs can, and should be, done without raising the nation’s budget deficit. A 15-cent increase in the gas tax would allow us to stay competitive into the future. We would be able to improve our nation’s aging infrastructure and prepare for our growing population.  

What would a gas tax increase mean to the average American driver? Think of it this way: Every penny added to the gas tax costs a driver traveling 20,000 miles a year and getting 20 mpg about $10 a year. Each penny also would lead to an estimated 13,860 jobs in the transportation construction sector.  

The gas tax is not the only way to keep our country competitive. All transportation funding options should be on the table. User fee on vehicle miles traveled, electronic tolling, state infrastructure banks and public-private partnerships are innovative options that all show promise. Right now, the gas tax is the most proven and most predictable revenue source available.  

Now is the time for Congress to set a clear path for cash-strapped states and transportation agencies. With uncertainty at the federal level, states are unable to plan and complete major projects. ARTBA reports that Arkansas, Georgia Tennessee and Wyoming have delayed projects totaling an estimated $779.7 million since the start of 2015. Other states are considering pulling future projects valued at an estimated $1.8 billion.  

In November, 67 percent of ballot measures to increase or extend funding for highways, bridges and transit passed across the country. Americans are willing to pay for infrastructure when they see what they will get and that there will be accountability to deliver.  

It’s time for congress to lead by adopting long-term funding for transportation. Let’s move our country forward.  

Paul Yarossi, PE, is president HNTB Holdings Ltd.

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