President Obama will introduce a sweeping plan to inject more than $300 billion into repairing decrepit roads, bridges, tunnels, and transit systems in a speech on Wednesday. The announcement comes just a few months ahead of another pressing deadline facing Congress, when the fund that pays to maintain U.S. infrastructure runs out on September 30.
Without the assurance of steady funding after that date, many governors are considering suspending repairs or new construction projects planned for the fall. Obama’s four-year plan offers both an increase in spending of about $90 billion as well as a more stable timeline, enabling states to start planning more ambitious infrastructure overhauls. The nearly depleted Highway Trust Fund would be replenished with $150 billion reaped from the end of certain tax breaks, while an additional $600 million will fund a new grant competition to encourage innovative transportation projects. The administration also plans to spend nearly 70 percent more on public transit systems, which are struggling to shoulder more and more passengers each year.
Experts and engineers have warned for years that aging infrastructure will require far more than superficial spot-by-spot repairs. In order to get crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure systems to a serviceable state, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the U.S. would need to spend $3.6 trillion on upgrades by 2020 — a staggering sum that dwarfs even Obama’s relatively ambitious plan.
Last year was characterized by a slew of bridge collapses and train derailments that threw the urgency of the infrastructure crisis in stark relief. About 8,000 bridges are at risk of collapsing at any moment, according to the AP, yet continue to carry more than 29 million drivers a day.
As the state of American infrastructure falls into increasingly dire disrepair, lawmakers of both parties are feeling pressured to rethink ways to pay for the mounting costs. The Highway Trust Fund has traditionally relied on revenue from the gas tax, but conservative opposition to raising the tax over the past two decades has made it essentially impossible for the fund to keep up with basic wear and tear. However, Republicans also blocked the Obama administration’s last attempt to pass infrastructure spending. They have also signaled they will not allow any big legislation to pass this year, which likely includes the kind of tax reform needed to make Obama’s plan work.