The White House officially put infrastructure on America’s to-do list last week, unveiling a 55-page proposal that President Trump called “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history.”
The $1.5 trillion plan calls for $200 billion in federal spending, a reduction in regulatory hurdles and a streamlined permitting process for projects.
“Washington will no longer be a roadblock to progress,” Trump said at a meeting with state and local officials to announce the initiative. “This is a common sense and bipartisan plan that every member of Congress should support. I look forward to working with them, and we’re going to get the American people roads that are fixed and bridges that are fixed.”
While that will be music to the ears of every American who barks out a string of curses every time their car bottoms out on a pothole, the road to getting an infrastructure bill through Congress figures to be just as bumpy.
According the White House blueprint, the $200 billion in federal spending would break down as follows:
“It’s highly encouraging that the White House is putting such an emphasis on infrastructure,” said Doug Massih, president of TRC’s Infrastructure Sector. “I don’t think anyone disagrees with the merits of the proposal or that we are obviously behind many other countries in terms of the condition of our infrastructure.”
Perhaps most important, the plan decentralizes a lot of the decision-making on projects, giving states more leeway to call the shots on which items they want to tackle.
“It pushes project prioritization back to the state and local level, where it belongs,” said Massih. “That’s really important because it’s the states that truly understand their needs and priorities.”
The plan would also establish a “one agency, one decision” arrangement for environmental reviews and shorten the permitting process to two years – as opposed to the 7-10 year window that’s now commonplace on large projects.
“That is a big deal, especially when you’re trying to get the private sector excited about funding infrastructure,” said Massih. “The amount of time to review and permit a project can be substantially reduced while still ensuring environmental protection.”
A Taxing Problem
What the White House proposal doesn’t do is address the Highway Trust Fund, which will run out of money in 2021 without an influx of cash. The Highway Trust Fund is financed by federal fuel taxes (18.4-cents-per-gallon for gas, 24.4 cents for diesel) that have been in place since 1993 – President Bill Clinton’s first year in office.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has proposed hiking the federal gasoline tax by 25 cents a gallon.
“A few weeks ago, we turned up the volume on the infrastructure conversation by offering up a few ideas of our own, and it’s encouraging to see that this administration shares our commitment to tackling this challenge in a meaningful way – and soon,” said Thomas J. Donohue, the Chamber’s president and CEO.
According to Donohue’s organization,75 percent of American voters want the federal government to invest more in the nation’s infrastructure and 59 percent want Congress to move forward on an infrastructure package now.
So what’s the hold up?
Well, while nearly everyone agrees on the need to fix our infrastructure, no one seems to agree on how to go about it. Various factions include:
And, of course, different stakeholders have different spending priorities – roads, bridges, rail, transit, airports, ports, wastewater, drinking water.
The Politics of Infrastructure
Hanging over everything is the fact that it’s an election year, meaning Democrats could be reluctant to hand the president a big legislative victory.
“President Trump’s plan is like the starter’s gun at an Olympic speed skating race,” said the American Road & Transportation Builders Association in its detailed analysis of the proposal. “In order for a package to be completed before Congress begins to focus full time on the November midterm election, we need to work hard to make sure this package moves at a record-breaking pace.”
But given the highly partisan state of affairs in Congress and perennial gridlock, it’s hard to imagine that happening. Highlighting the gulf between the two parties, on February 8 House Democrats unveiled their own infrastructure proposal, which called for a $1 trillion investment over the next 10 years – all of it coming from federal coffers.
“I think they can probably meet somewhere in the middle,” said Massih. “I don’t think either side wants to be the one to say, ‘We dropped the ball on infrastructure.’”
Kristina Swallow, president of ASCE, called the White House plan is a “solid first step,” but cautioned that more money is needed to truly repair years of neglect.
“Now it’s time for Congress to develop a bill that can pass with bipartisan support,” Swallow said. “If we are going to work on infrastructure, we should do this right and seize the opportunity to modernize our infrastructure and put us on a path for increased economic prosperity. This bill should increase federal investment including a long-term, sustainable fix to the Highway Trust Fund.”
Every four years the ASCE issues a report card that grades the nation’s infrastructure. The grade for 2017? A D+, the same as in 2013.
While the White House earns high marks for putting the issue on the table for the first time in a long time, it remains to be seen if lawmakers and the president can ace the bigger test of actually getting something passed.