With the impending shortage in the U.S. Highway Trust Fund, claws have come out across the political spectrum. Grassroots activists decry what they see as wasteful spending on many highway projects, while governors on both sides of the aisle, as well as union and business interests, fear what they believe would happen if the federal dollars begin to dry up.

Harsh rhetoric abounds, with Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, calling the grassroots threatening Republican lawmakers:

…fringe elements who are using intolerant social propaganda and distorting the records of honorable men and women, driving them into the wilderness of defeat.

Meanwhile Dan Holler at Heritage Action responds that:

America is not facing ‘a transportation government shutdown’ and lawmakers should stop trying to create an artificial crisis which they can use as an excuse to raise taxes or increase spending.

The fight hinges mainly on the gas tax, which many lawmakers are keen to raise to address the shortfall. The House passed legislation to plug the hole yesterday, and the Senate will take up the issue later this week. Alternate plans are continually bandied about, including Rep. Kerry Bentivolio’s Repairing Our Aging Roads Act (the ROAR Act, unfortunately introduced without any references to bringing our roads “roaring” back). The opposing sides have dug in, with many interest groups favoring an increase, while conservative activists press lawmakers to refuse until all wasteful spending is rooted out.

Like many political fights in D.C., it’s quite plausible that both sides are correct – while we should be fighting unnecessary spending and artificially inflated costs, it could also be very possible that a gas tax increase is necessary to modernize our nation’s infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers rated America’s roads a “D” and our bridges a “C+.” The Federal Highway Administration estimates that $170 billion is needed annually to improve road performance, but the gas tax falls short. While these studies should be taken with a grain of salt, even Richard Geddes of the conservative American Enterprise Institute questions the ability of the gas tax to bring in the amount necessary to fix the problems.

On July 8, Americans for Prosperity released a coalition letter signed by 17 conservative and libertarian organizations laying out a set of principles to address the issue. These principles include limiting fuel tax revenue to fund federal roads and bridges only; giving control over state interests back to the states; and reforming regulations like the Davis-Bacon Act’s “prevailing wage” requirements and redundant environmental impact studies that increase costs. Each of these principles have merit, and should be considered seriously by any fiscally responsible lawmaker also interested in improving America’s infrastructure.

However, it could be true that even if all those principles were adhered to, an increase in the gas tax may still be necessary to deal with our nation’s aging infrastructure. Unfortunately, the heated nature of these debates obscures any real discussion over our country’s needs and how to best address them. For unions, the money is a sacred pot in an age of declining membership and opportunity. For business, the specter of aging roads and failing transportation networks incites deep fears. And for politicians, the money represents real dollars for their districts.

But for government watchdogs, the spending is rightfully another example of waste and abuse. In today’s age of bitter partisanship, thoughtful conversation seems unlikely, which is unfortunate, as it will likely result in more dollars wasted and less actual infrastructure improvement. We should be considering a wide variety of alternatives, as fuel efficiency increases and Americans drive less. In this vein, Geddes and Brookings’ Clifford Winston have put forward several innovative solutions. But with elections pending, Congress’ ability to consider real alternatives seems to be out of gas.

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