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New Capitol Hill leadership ready to push freight infrastructure agenda

As the 116th Congress convenes today, changes in leadership among House and Senate committees will be important to the success or failure of an infrastructure agenda. Will that agenda find bipartisan support by politicians looking to score political points on Capitol Hill and within the Trump administration?

Many are confident that the leadership changes will jumpstart infrastructure investment that had been a priority of the White House but failed to gain momentum.

“We’re generally positive that those assuming leadership positions have a real commitment to infrastructure and ensuring that something gets done under their watch,” Elaine Nessle, executive director of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, told FreightWaves.

In February 2018, President Trump unveiled a formal infrastructure plan that sought to raise $1.5 trillion through state, local, and private investment by leveraging $200 billion in federal spending over 10 years.

“Rather than telling governors and mayors what to do, we will partner with them as they invest in the most pressing projects in the highest-need places,” said Trump’s chief economic adviser Gary Cohn at the time. “And where it makes sense, we will move old infrastructure off the government balance sheet and into private investment.”

But Trump’s infrastructure plan, and its emphasis on local government and private investment, took a backseat to other issues throughout 2018 – namely border security – and Congress was satisfied to wait for the November midterm elections before taking it up again. With Democrats winning control of the House of Representatives as a result those elections, there has been a renewed emphasis on infrastructure from both sides of the aisle.

One of the more important developments is that Peter DeFazio (D-OR) will become chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over highways, railroads, aviation, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

DeFazio, who was first elected to Congress in 1986, has helped craft several multi-billion surface transportation reauthorization packages when he was ranking member of the Highways subcommittee. Joining DeFazio on the House T&I Committee’s leadership will be ranking member Sam Graves, a Republican from Missouri who chaired the Highways subcommittee and is said to be anxious to take action on infrastructure.

DeFazio has made his intentions known about bringing back earmarks as a means of funding infrastructure projects, which is another potential positive for freight transportation.

Earmarks were banned in 2010 by House Republicans because of abuse by members of Congress who had control over the federal purse strings. Since then, projects to expand road, rail, and port facilities have had to rely instead on competitive grants and other funding sources for federal dollars. As a result, certain projects considered critical to moving cargo have been delayed.

With the Democrats taking control of the House, “I think the probability of getting [earmarks] reinstated is pretty high,” Mark Sickles, government relations director for Weeks Marine, a port and harbor dredging contractor, told FreightWaves. “There are probably enough votes to pass earmarks in the House and even the Senate, maybe by including restrictions as a way to keep things from getting out of hand, which led to them being banned.”

Another development that comes with the change in House leadership and which could prove pivotal for freight infrastructure funding is a stated desire by Earl Blumenauer (another Democrat from Oregon) to establish an infrastructure subcommittee within the House Ways & Means Committee.

According to Capitol Hill sources, one reason why Blumenauer, who is a member of the committee’s tax policy subcommittee, is interested in taking such action is to put more urgency in developing infrastructure “pay-fors,” which could include raising the federal gasoline tax, which fuels the Highway Trust Fund but has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993.

Because of inflation, the fund’s purchasing power for the concrete, steel, and asphalt that builds roads and bridges has been essentially cut in half over the last 25 years. The American Trucking Associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have both endorsed raising the tax – by 25 cents in the case of the U.S. Chamber – to help cover the shortfall and to keep the trust fund from going bankrupt.

In the Senate, where Republicans added to its majority (bringing their total to 53), a change at the top could help promote the freight infrastructure cause.

John Thune (R-South Dakota) will move from chairing the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to become Majority Whip, the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate after Mitch McConnell.

Thune said in a recent interview with USA Today that he considers the move “a way to keep issues important to South Dakota on the national agenda,” with railroad infrastructure being one of them, by helping to round up legislative votes from his Senate colleagues.

Dan Elliott, former chairman of the Surface Transportation Board, which oversees regulation affecting railroads and their customers, points out that South Dakota is a major agriculture state with many rail shippers. “So when we had a rail service crisis that had a significant effect on North and South Dakota, they paid extremely close attention to how we were handling it” at the board, he told FreightWaves. “Senator Thune cares a lot about the industry and will be in position to increase the exposure of issues affecting rail shippers.”

Taking over from Thune as chair of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Wicker’s most recent freight initiative was the Port Improvements Act, which heintroduced in August and was aimed at building cargo efficiency through port and intermodal connections.

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