The rough weather this past winter resulted in substantial road damage which we have all had to navigate. But by the end of summer the pot holes will be filled and most roads will be patched, giving us the false sense that our highways have been fixed. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Our highway infrastructure continues to deteriorate. One in nine U.S. bridges (more than 66,000) are structurally deficient. Every day, 260 million drivers cross these bridges, unaware of the danger under their wheels.
Hundreds of thousands of highway miles depend on the federal Highway Trust Fund, mostly financed by the gasoline tax, for maintenance. Actually, about half of our nation's transportation spending - including for mass transit - comes from that fund. Yet, in a matter of weeks, the trust fund will run out of money. Why? The federal tax paid on every gallon of gasoline and diesel has not been increased in 21 years. That means that for every dollar raised in 1993, that dollar is worth only 63 cents today. This is compounded by what in all other regards is good news - cars are more fuel efficient than they used to be so we're buying less gasoline per mile driven.
The bankruptcy of the Highway Trust Fund is a crisis that needs to be solved right now, and I'm happy to say that our own Sen. Bob Corker has proposed a way to do that. Working with Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, Republican Corker has introduced a bipartisan bill that calls for a 12 cent increase in the federal gas tax over two years, or 6 cents a year. This will make up for the loss of buying power the trust fund has suffered since 1993. Also, Corker's bill would ensure that we're never in this bind again by indexing the gas tax for inflation.
According to Corker's office, state budgets around the country will lose $160 billion with the trust fund running dry. In Tennessee alone, our transportation budget will be cut in half. Not only will this result in increasing danger on our roads, it will cost thousands of jobs nationwide.
I stand second to no one in my support for our nation's defense. Yet, the contrast in how our government willingly spends money on defense since 9/11 with its reluctance to support our internal infrastructure is startling and frustrating. It is estimated that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost U.S. taxpayers $2 trillion so far. What does the gas tax yield every year? About $30 billion. That means the trust fund has collected about a fifth of what we've spent on the two wars. This discrepancy needs to be rectified.
Before becoming chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I worked in our state government and I learned that it takes broad public support to accomplish big things.
That is why I, as a proud and active Democrat, am happy to support Republican Sen. Corker in what critics will facilely attack as a tax increase when actually it is merely getting the federal gasoline and diesel tax back to where it was 21 years ago.
I hope Congress and the President rally around this necessary and courageous action, and I certainly hope all of us in Tennessee will throw our full support behind the Corker/Murphy bill to get America back to work on what can be the finest and safest highway system in the world.
Jim Hall is a Signal Mountain resident.