Washington’s failure to come up with a long-term funding plan to repair the nation’s faltering transportation system is shifting the cost of critical infrastructure repairs to state and local taxpayers, according to Standard & Poor’s Rating Services.
“The burden to finance infrastructure projects will fall more heavily on local government entities or users in the form of higher rates or tolls,” the financial analysts said this past week, “and some important construction could simply be deferred.”
Infrastructure has been the elephant in the room in Washington for years. Only a few of the people running for office this year have mentioned it, and none of them have embraced it.
The reason was captured by a single sentence in the Standard & Poor’s report: The “country has a $2.2 trillion backlog of infrastructure projects.”
It has been suggested that Maryland spend $5.8 billion to widen part of the Capital Beltway. Extending the Metro system to Dulles International Airport is a $5.6 billion project.
Needs like those traditionally have been met with a balance of federal, state and local money. Now, as Washington is gripped by political deadlock and buried in deficits, the balance has begun to shift.
With new taxes an anathema in an anemic economy, and with the possibility of deep automatic budget cuts next year if officials can’t agree on alternative savings, a serious discussion about coming up with billions or trillions of dollars for transportation wasn’t on the top candidates’ debate agenda.
In four debates — three presidential and one vice-presidential — the single mention of infrastructure came on Oct. 16 when President Obama said that money saved by ending wars could be used to rebuild roads, bridges and schools. Attacking the federal budget deficit, which at a mere $1.1 trillion is half the size of projected infrastructure needs, made easier fodder for debate.
“Regardless of who wins the next election, for the next couple of years, we see [the available transportation revenue] and it’s insufficient,” said Geoffrey E. Buswick, the analyst who wrote the Standard & Poor’s report. “After that we’re not sure we’re going to get any type of broad solution or increase in funding unless there is a meaningful
tax -reform debate.”
Standard & Poor’s did credit Congress with passing a $105 billion bill for surface transportation this year that will expire in September 2014. The bill continued funding at levels set in 2005, adjusted for inflation, but fell vastly short of the amount that independent analysts and most people on Capitol Hill say is required to rescue the nation’s infrastructure from the slippery slope of decline.