Rural Republicans question using private cash to fix infrastructure

Rural Republicans are expressing serious doubt that private financing — the funding tool favored by conservatives and the White House — could fix the infrastructure needs in their communities.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened a hearing on Wednesday to get input from transportation leaders from rural regions as lawmakers and the new administration assemble an infrastructure package. 

“Funding solutions that involve public-private partnerships, as have been discussed by administration officials, may be innovative solutions for crumbling inner cities, but do not work for rural areas,” Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said.

“Public-private partnerships and other approaches to infrastructure investment that depend on a positive revenue stream from a project are not a surface transportation infrastructure solution for rural states.”

{mosads}The comments signal that Barrasso, the new chairman of the panel, will fight to ensure that rural priorities are reflected in any infrastructure bill. He may also have a willing partner in the Transportation Committee, which is chaired by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).

During her Senate confirmation hearing, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao assured Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) that the administration would ensure equal access to transportation opportunities among rural and urban areas.

“It’s really important to identify a consistent revenue source, without raising taxes, to be able to fund beyond maintenance,” Sen. Deb. Fischer (R-Neb.) said Thursday,

One of Trump’s chief campaign promises was to inject $1 trillion into the nation’s ailing roads, bridges and airports. He has not sketched out a plan in detail yet, though he has floated a proposal that would offer federal tax credits to private firms that finance transportation projects. 

That funding mechanism is preferred by conservatives, who are leery of backing massive federal spending on transportation.

But infrastructure advocates have warned that the model would favor urban areas over rural ones, because investors would only be attracted to projects that can recoup their own investment costs through some of sort of revenue stream like user fees or toll ways. Those types of projects tend to be concentrated in more populous areas with higher traffic.

“Public-private partnerships and other approaches to infrastructure investment that depend on a positive revenue stream from a project are not a surface transportation infrastructure solution for rural states,” said William T. Panos, director of Wyoming’s Department of Transportation.

Panos, who emphasized that he doesn’t oppose public-private partnership, warned that even if the deals are supplemented by federal tax credits, private investors won’t be attracted to rural projects. They “are not enough,” he said.

Shailen P. Bhatt, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Transportation, said 70 percent of the state’s transportation funds come from the federal government.

Part of the reason why rural states depend heavily on the government for transportation dollars is they tend to have smaller populations and thus less revenue to keep up with aging infrastructure in sprawling areas. Rural states, particularly in the west, also have a large number of federal parks and public lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) pointed out that the issue also affects broadband in rural areas, which can hurt school children trying to use the internet for homework, she said.

Cindy R. Bobbitt, a commissioner of Grant County, Okla., also said that changes to the agricultural sector have increased the distance products have to travel in order to get from farms to markets, thus putting an added strain on rural roads, highways, locks and dams.

“We often have to choose between funding our infrastructure or funding emergency services,” she said. “Rural counties are experiencing increasing and shifting demands on our transportation infrastructure”

Panelists advocated for a diverse set of funding tools in an infrastructure bill. They also called on lawmakers to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund; strengthen formula programs; and ensure regulations take rural and urban differences into account. 

“Our committee has members from both urban and rural areas,” Barrasso said. “The diversity of these cities and towns makes it clear; solutions to address and pay for fixing our nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and dams cannot be ‘one-size-fits-all.’ ”

Tags John Barrasso John Thune Shelley Moore Capito
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