Legislation mixing infrastructure funding with reform to the regulatory processes needed to approve massive highway projects could be part of the solution to the nation's road improvement needs.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., is pushing her Build USA Infrastructure bill, a revamped version of a bill by the same name she introduced in 2015, which aims to provide greater solvency for the Highway Trust Fund while speeding up highway construction projects.
To do this, the bill moves $21.4 billion annually in fees collected by Customs and Border Patrol from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund from 2021-26. Fischer believes this will cover a projected $107 billion shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund expected to come in 2026.
The bill also allows states to send back 10 percent of their Highway Trust Fund money to the federal government in exchange for receiving control over designing a project, approving environmental permits and constructing the project.
Fischer said the combination of sending more money into the fund and speeding up the construction process, along with the 10 percent remittances to the federal government from states that take advantage of the regulatory controls, will ultimately save the taxpayer money.
"It takes years and years and years to go from an idea for a road and completion for a project and the whole time ... material costs continue to rise," Fischer told the Washington Examiner.
She added, "[The bill] will make [the Highway Trust Fund] whole, and I think that's an important first step, to make sure that we can fund the trust fund at the level that it's supposed to be funded at."
The Highway Trust Fund is the primary way the federal government funds road improvement projects. It's funded by an 18.4 cents per gallon tax on gasoline and a 24.4 cents per gallon tax on diesel fuel. The trust fund is split into two accounts, one for highways and the other for mass transportation.
Currently, the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) is set to help fully fund the Highway Trust Fund until 2020. Fischer's bill would take up the mantle of fully funding the trust fund after that law expires.
She said the Customs and Border Patrol fees would come from the approximately $46 billion collected annually from freight and passenger fees at America's ports and borders. The agency uses about $2 billion of that money, and the rest goes into the general fund.
Fischer said these are fees on transportation and could reasonably be directed toward infrastructure projects.
Michael Sargent, a research associate at the Heritage Foundation, said this part of the bill is merely a bailout of the Highway Trust Fund and ignores a long-term solution to fix shortfalls in the fund.
"That's unacceptable by and large, and kicking the can down the road," he said.
Heritage wants the trust fund to get back into the business of solely funding highway construction projects, instead of dabbling in mass transportation, bike lanes and pedestrian walkways. Sargent said Fischer's bill largely ignores this issue.
However, he was more than ready to praise the regulatory reform aspect of Fischer's plan.
Sargent said giving the states more power over deciding which projects are built and putting more power in the hands of state regulatory agencies is preferable to dealing with the morass of the federal bureaucracy. He said states will still need to fulfill environmental standards in order to build their projects, but speeding up the process saves money.
"It definitely moves in the right direction, giving states much more authority over choosing their own projects," he said. "Taking the onus out of Washington and reducing waiting times to hear from federal bureaucrats [is a good idea]."
That part of the bill got some blowback from environmentalists the first time Fischer introduced the bill.
Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, told the Omaha World Herald that it's a risk to the environment to trust state regulatory agencies with federal highway projects.
"It's also very clear that this is an attempt to try to skirt some important environmental regulations," DeGood said. "You're turning over all responsibility, and basically states are going to stand up and swear on a piece of paper that they've done everything that they're required to do. I have a lot of concerns that states would actually implement federal environmental and other laws."
Fischer brushed off those concerns.
"It's not cutting back on regulations at all," she said. "It turns the control over to the states, so the states are going to be in the driver's seat when it comes to the design and permitting when it comes to that federal highway project."
During her time in the Nebraska legislature, Fischer authored a similar bill that allowed municipalities to take their federal dollars and exchange them for 90 cents on the dollar with the Nebraska Department of Roads in order to have more control over the projects.
She said it's working in her home state and would work at the federal level. Since President Trump made infrastructure spending and jobs a central part of his campaign in its final days, she's hoping he'll be ready to jump on board with her proposal as a part of a step-by-step process to address the country's infrastructure.
"I have a good idea here, and it needs to be out there and it needs to be part of the conversation," she said.