John Oliver Takes On U.S. Failure To Address Crumbling Infrastructure

Earlier this month, the HBO comedian/investigative reporter took on the crisis in crumbling infrastructure, such as dams, roadways, and bridges. It was an unprecedented 21-minute segment, featuring famous actors and plenty of action clips, with lots of implications for our transportation system.  You can watch the clip here:

Oliver rightly attributes much of the problem to the fact that the federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, resulting in essentially a 30% decrease in revenue, given inflation.

But there’s a larger trend at work here that Oliver’s “reporting” reveals: the federal government (or at least most Republicans, who will probably dominate Congress until redistricting in the early 2020s) has no interest in raising the revenue necessary to fully fund our infrastructure. Perhaps there will be some politically viable alternatives, such as mileage-based fee. But to me it looks like the federal government will not be in the infrastructure funding game to much extent for the foreseeable future.

So where does that leave our infrastructure crisis? In short, states and local governments will need to step up. Many already are. In California, half the transportation dollars are now raised locally. And the state is experimenting with a mileage-based fee and other options for increasing revenue.

But this arrangement is not ideal. It will leave some states in good shape and some states (I’m looking at you Alabama) with some ticking infrastructure time bombs on their hands, due to their failure to raise revenue. And it will mean competing priorities for how this money is spent, as some local officials will want shiny new roadways, while state governments like California are trying to invest in projects that actually reduce driving (i.e. maintenance, bike paths, sidewalks, transit, and carpool lanes).

I’m glad Oliver is shining his spotlight on the problem, but it will ultimately take renewed political pressure to change the federal dynamic that he lampoons.  Maybe his segment is a good start to launch that movement.


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