May 23, 2016 4:00 AM, EDT

Editorial: The Infrastructure Debate Continues

This Editorial appears in the May 23 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Many regular readers of this page were doubtlessly hoping that the December passage of the FAST Act would at long last get us to shut up about infrastructure funding for at least the first three years of the five-year law. But since last week was Infrastructure Week, no such luck.

The discussions in and around the nation’s capital are largely academic for now as there certainly will be no major highway legislation anytime soon, but that does not eliminate debate — and reasonably so.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said the FAST Act, while useful, did not go nearly far enough in stabilizing infrastructure finance. His point was that the law failed by not establishing a sustainable source of money for the Highway Trust Fund and kept the federal fuel taxes at 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel and 18.4 cents for gasoline.

“We have gotten to a point where we’re unwilling to pay for things, unwilling or unable to pay for things,” Carper said.

That unwillingness gets pricey over time. The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates that by 2025 the backlog of unbuilt but necessary projects will top $1 trillion.

This is what led FedEx Freight CEO Michael Ducker to observe to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “The transportation infrastructure in our country is at a really critical inflection point. . . . The deterioration of our nation’s highways, bridges and ports, both air and ocean, is reaching crisis proportions.” Deficient roads and bridges lead to “increased cost, service delays and untold equipment damage,” said the boss of the nation’s largest less-than-truckload carrier.

Some politicians and analysts fault traditional fuel taxes because there are new fuels that are neither diesel nor gas, because vehicles are more fuel-efficient than before, because some people don’t drive at all and because, well, they’re taxes.

We support the idea of primary transportation users, including trucking companies, paying for infrastructure, and we still say fuel taxes are the best way to do it.

Their virtue is that they can be collected very cheaply and they are extremely difficult to escape, and those are important qualities. The same attributes are not found in tolling — either by governments or through public-private partnerships — or in a vehicle-miles-traveled tax.

Congress should certainly tread carefully on taxes, but transportation infrastructure, the foundation of commerce, is a necessity not an option.