Blog   |   Nov 1st, 2017 Are the White House and Congress Paving the Way for a Major Infrastructure Bill?

Trc Infrastructure

Expected to be an early, first-100-days priority, President Trump’s vow to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure has thus far been forced to the sidelines as Congress tackled more pressing matters.

First: the GOP’s attempts to repeal Obamacare. Second: more recent efforts at tax reform, where the administration appears to be having better success. Those are both enormous legislative lifts, and their complexity and impact have combined to delay – but not derail – legislation that will help bring the nation’s infrastructure up to snuff.

“Infrastructure will not be taken up until tax reform has been completed,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told the American Trucking Association at its annual meeting October 23.

Lawmakers agree.

“There are a lot of things we are trying to get done before we get to infrastructure,” Sen. John Thune [R-SD] told the Hill. “I know it’s a priority for [the president]. It’s on their radar screen. But right now there’s kind of an immediate to-do list. Tax reform, of course, is front and center.”

The good news is that to-do list is moving along. Last week the House approved a federal budget, a key step in making tax reform a reality. While no small feat, the administration wants to get its overhaul of the federal tax code finished by the end of the year. That would pave the way in early 2018 for an infrastructure bill, which theoretically could draw bipartisan support.

Better Late Than Never

While almost a year later than many expected, the shift to infrastructure will be welcome news for a number of industries, which have been eagerly awaiting the president’s blueprint for making America’s roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and transit systems great again.

On the campaign trail and since taking office Trump has promised to spend $1 trillion to improve the nation’s infrastructure. But the White House has yet to roll out an official plan showing what that entails.

“No longer will we allow the infrastructure of our magnificent country to crumble and decay,” Trump said in August. “While protecting the environment, we will be gleaming new roads, bridges, railways, waterways, tunnels and highways. We will rebuild our country with American workers, American iron, American aluminum, American steel. We will create millions of new jobs and make millions of dreams come true.”

Sounds good. But when? And how?

The administration’s budget from earlier this year earmarked $200 billion for such activities. It’s unclear where the other $800 billion would come from. Early on the president expressed interest in more public-private partnerships, but later seemed to temper his enthusiasm for those. There’s also been talk of shifting a bigger funding burden to the states. And recent reports indicate the administration might push for an increase to the federal gasoline tax – the first since 1993.

How Much Will it Cost?

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that America needs to invest $4.6 trillion into its infrastructure to bring it up to the proper standards. To do so, it recommends boosting infrastructure spending to 3.5 percent of GDP by 2025 from the current 2.5 percent.

Every four years ASCE undertakes an exhaustive review of the nation’s infrastructure and issues an in-depth report card. The overall grade in 2017 was a D+, the same as in 2013.

So what does a D+ mean? About what you’d expect if you do much driving or use public transportation.

“Fair to poor condition and mostly below standard … a large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration,” is how the group describes that grade. Three of the 16 categories ASCE looks at – parks, solid waste and transit – saw their marks go down since 2013. Six categories stayed the same and seven showed slight improvement.

“Reversing the trajectory after decades of underinvestment in our infrastructure requires transformative action from Congress, states, infrastructure owners, and the American people,” says the ASCE.

Baby Steps

While the broader infrastructure plan gets mapped out, the White House has taken some immediate steps aimed at jumpstarting various projects already in the pipeline, such as executive orders aimed at simplifying and speeding up permitting processes. Industry leaders say that’s a good start, but that’s all it is.

Also to consider: just because the administration wants to tackle infrastructure doesn’t mean it will succeed. A big infrastructure bill could easily be derailed by partisan gridlock, lawmakers who vote against the grain due to differing state or regional priorities, or lobbyists and special interests doing what they do best.

“It’s going to be difficult to thread the needle to get all of the disparate factions on Capitol Hill to support an infrastructure program,” Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, told Engineering News Record earlier this year. “You’ve got Republicans who say it has to be paid for. You have Democrats who are going to be pushing back on some opportunities to streamline the permitting process. You’re going to have all kinds of reasons to be against this, even though the public seems to want to get it done.”

Next Steps

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Doug Hanchett

Doug Hanchett

Formerly an award-winning journalist, Doug Hanchett is TRC’s communications manager. He spent more than a decade working as a newspaper reporter and covered transportation for the Boston Herald before becoming Director of Media Relations for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and Boston’s “Big Dig” (the Central Artery/Tunnel Project).