IN MY APRIL COLUMN (“THE CONTINUING INFRASTRUCTURE
fiasco,” p. 39), I lamented Congress’s long history of inaction when it
comes to funding critical infrastructure repairs and improvements.
And nothing has changed in the months since. Although President
Trump has asked for legislation that would produce a $1 trillion
investment in U.S. infrastructure (financed by $200 billion from the
federal government with the remainder coming from private sources
or private/public partnerships), there’s been no progress on that front.
Now, Congress has gone into summer recess.
When legislators return to Washington, they’ll face a jam-packed
agenda. Along with tackling tax reform, they must pass a $700 million bill to fund the Pentagon, reauthorize the
Federal Aviation Administration and Food and
Drug Administration, decide whether to privat-ize air traffic control, and find a way to keep
the government open past the end of September.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who had
promised an infrastructure plan by September, has
now pushed that date out to the end of the year. I
would be surprised—in fact, shocked—if anything
happens by then.
I have long believed that it is the federal government’s responsibility to plan and fund the nation’s
infrastructure—to develop and preserve a national
transportation system adequate to meet the needs
of commerce and serve the public interest. The current interstate
highway system, conceived in 1956, is an excellent example of a federal infrastructure project undertaken for the national good. But since
that time, most of the infrastructure funds have been allocated to the
states to finance their own projects. There has been no “master plan.”
Although the Obama administration did draft a blueprint of such a
plan, then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx characterized it as
“a conversation about the future rather than a conclusive definition of
a path forward.” I assume that it’s sitting on a shelf somewhere, a victim of the “not invented here” syndrome. All these developments, and
the lack of others, have caused me to reluctantly change my position
on congressional responsibility.
I now believe our best shot at fixing the nation’s infrastructure is to
just let the states do it. Give them whatever federal funds are available
and let them take it from there. This is not a wholly new idea. In the
past five years, 22 states have raised their fuel taxes to fund their own
improvements, due to Congress’s failure to act. Congress seems to be
terrified of endorsing a fuel tax increase, although the states have done
BY CLIFFORD F. LYNCH fastlane
A reluctant change of heart
so with little pushback. I suspect this is largely
because the taxpayer can readily see where the
money is going.
The major risk here is that the states will
choose projects that benefit the state but contribute little, if anything, to a national highway system. A case in point is the infamous
Interstate 69. Begun in the early 1990s, I-69,
called the NAFTA Superhighway, was envisioned as a corridor running from Canada to
Mexico through the U.S. heartland, connecting
all three countries and spurring economic growth along
the way. More than 25 years
later, the highway is nowhere
Although the project was
ostensibly stalled by a lack of
funds, consider how things
played out in one of the
affected states, Tennessee.
After completing some I-69-
related work at the Kentucky
and Mississippi borders,
Tennessee halted construction through the rest of the state due to lack of
funding. It did find money, however, for a $753
million Nashville bypass, and the state completed it instead. While this has been a great thing
for those traveling from Memphis to Knoxville
on football weekends, is it more important than
the NAFTA Superhighway? To most Tennessee
residents, it probably is. State biases notwithstanding, I have come to the opinion that the
advantages of state initiatives will outweigh the
disadvantages of their unilateral actions.
Clifford F. Lynch is principal of C.F. Lynch & Associates, a provider
of logistics management advisory services, and author of Logistics
Outsourcing – A Management Guide and co-author of The Role of
Transportation in the Supply Chain. He can be reached at cliff@