Two days after President Trump told Congress that the time had come to tackle roads, bridges and transit, the House Transportation Committee began the difficult task of crafting a bipartisan plan to bolster the nation’s aging infrastructure.
Congress has a narrow window — perhaps less than a year — to achieve its infrastructure goals before it’s caught in the crossfire of the 2020 presidential election.
“I think the stars are aligned for a big infrastructure bill,” Ray LaHood, a Republican who served as transportation secretary under President Barack Obama, told the committee Thursday. “It’s got to be big and it’s got to be bold. It can’t be chintzy.”
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), the new chairman of the committee, began the hearing by using his phone to sound an alarm.
“This is the alarm sounding for America’s infrastructure,” he said as laughter broke out. DeFazio pointed to a $2 trillion investment gap in infrastructure cited by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“The cost of inaction has incredibly serious consequences that far, far exceed the cost of were we to belly up, suck it up a little bit, and [come up] with the money we need,” DeFazio said. “The more we defer, the more it costs.”
Trump’s message in the State of the Union address, about the need “to rebuild and revitalize our nation’s infrastructure,” was reassuring to advocates who remember him speaking out on the subject during the campaign and again after taking office.
“Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure,” Trump said in his speech. “I know that Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill. And I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future. This is not an option. This is a necessity.”
Critics, however, remember that Trump swept into office promising to find $1 trillion to invest in infrastructure, only to see little energy expended in the cause.
“Two years ago we heard two presidential candidates talk about hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment, and America is still waiting,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) told the committee Thursday.
Asked whether the effort would falter again, LaHood responded, “Try to get a signal from the White House on what they’d be agreeable to. If President Trump is not with you on this, it’s going to be very difficult to pass in the [Republican] Senate. We have a very short window here. If it doesn’t happen this year it won’t happen until after the presidential campaign.”
Garcetti said a recent national poll found that infrastructure ranked second to health care in the issues most important to Americans.
“In 2019, believe it or not, 80 percent of Americans agree on something, and that’s the need to move forward on infrastructure,” Garcetti said. “Nations across the world are planning for 50 years or 100 years for infrastructure, while we’re limping forward with two- and five-year Band-Aids” passed by Congress.
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s address, DeFazio issued a statement saying he would “work to build bipartisan agreement around legislation, but I can’t do it alone. This will require massive effort from the White House, stakeholders, and supporters in Congress to get something real across the finish line.”
Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said after the speech that success required “the president’s leadership on infrastructure, and the widespread agreement on the need to act.”
Graves, the committee’s ranking Republican, added: “It’s up to Congress to work together and with the administration to find common ground on issues that pose real threats to the future of our infrastructure network.”
Graves and DeFazio acknowledged that the stumbling block has been how to pay for massive infrastructure projects. The funding process is complicated, but it can be summarized by saying the primary source is the Highway Trust Fund, into which flows the federal tax on gas and diesel fuel. Gas tax revenue has declined for a variety of reasons, among them greater fuel efficiency and hybrid or electric cars.
Congress has transferred $144 billion from other funds to support the current transportation bill, which expires Sept. 30. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that over the next decade, the Highway Trust Fund will fall $159 billion short if current spending levels stay the same.
Two key advocacy groups expressed support for Trump’s speech, hopeful that he will follow through.
“We appreciate that the president identified infrastructure as one of his top priorities for legislative action this year, and indicated that it is not an option, but a necessity,” Robin A. Kemper, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers said in a statement. “Infrastructure legislation must be at the top of the list for the 116th Congress.”
Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, also endorsed the speech.
“Transportation has long been a bipartisan concern and this year, with the Administration’s support a transportation bill can be that rare opportunity to bring members of Congress together from both sides of the aisle,” Tymon said in a statement.