Work begins on $1T infrastructure plan
President Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure package is slowly beginning to take shape.
Although the debate over repealing and replacing ObamaCare is hogging the spotlight in Washington, work is underway behind the scenes to craft comprehensive legislation aimed at repairing U.S. roads, bridges and airports.
Trump has held several meetings on the topic at the White House, where he suggested a 90-day deadline for projects to get off the ground. States have submitted hundreds of transportation proposals for the administration to start vetting, and Congress held a hearing to explore potential funding options.
Yet a timeline for considering the plan remains up in the air, and it is unclear how the infrastructure projects would be paid for.
“It’s still moving. Just because we’re not out here talking about it doesn’t mean there isn’t work being done,” Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), who was a member of Trump’s transition team, told The Hill. “It’s not been pushed to the back burner.”
In an address to a joint session of Congress last month, Trump reiterated his campaign promise to inject money into the nation’s infrastructure. During that speech, he said he envisions the bill being funded through a mix of “public and private financing.”
Before that, the only hints about Trump’s proposal had come from a white paper floated on the campaign trail that solely relied on federal tax credits for private investors. That idea has raised concern among Republicans from rural states, who fear being left behind.
“Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land,” Trump said during the speech. “To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital — creating millions of new jobs.”
Trump’s speech came amid reports that the White House and Republican leaders might push back consideration of an infrastructure bill until 2018, to give lawmakers more breathing room to work on other issues during the packed legislative year.
Trump initially had promised to deliver a proposal to Congress within his first 100 days in office.
But the administration has at least kick-started internal deliberations on the proposal, though discussions are still in the early stages.
Trump tasked real-estate developers Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth with leading a new council of builders and engineers to oversee his infrastructure spending plans and vet potential projects.
The administration will have plenty of projects to choose from. The National Governors Association recently submitted a list of over 400 “shovel ready” projects it said could be considered for the infrastructure package.
During a meeting earlier this month, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn called on officials from 15 federal agencies and departments to identify new infrastructure projects, existing projects that need help, regulatory burdens for permitting and construction and potential funding offsets, according to The Washington Post.
The most recent clues about Trump’s plan came at a private White House luncheon last week with aides and executives.
The president floated the idea of giving states 90 days to start a project, asking the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to provide a recommendation.
“We’re not going to give the money to states unless they can prove that they can be ready, willing and able to start the project,” Trump said, according to The Wall Street Journal, which was invited to observe the meeting. “We don’t want to give them money if they’re all tied up for seven years with state bureaucracy.”
Trump reportedly expressed interest in the construction of high-speed railways and requested more information from Tesla CEO Elon Musk on his “Hyperloop” project, a transportation concept aimed at moving passengers at extremely high speeds through low-pressure tubes.
The Journal also reported that the administration is eyeing a repatriation tax holiday to generate about $200 billion in funding, though the report noted other sources are also being considered. Previously, the White House had only pointed to tax credits and tollways as potential funding tools.
Many transportation leaders in Congress believe infrastructure’s best path to the finish line is through tax reform.
Some lawmakers have leaned towards taxing corporate earnings that are stored abroad when that money returns to the U.S., a process called “repatriation,” and using that revenue to pay for infrastructure spending. But other Republicans want to use all of that money to overhaul the tax code.
“The only way to pay for a meaningful infrastructure program is through tax reform,” said Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), who sponsors a bipartisan bill to do just that. “Once you de-link it, I think the chances of there being any leftover money for infrastructure are non-existent.”
Trump met last week with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka to talk about infrastructure, trade and wages. Trumka was critical of Trump on the campaign trail but sees infrastructure as an opportunity to work with the president.
Rural broadband and farm groups also sat down with staff members on the National Economic Council last week to offer suggestions about how the president could tackle infrastructure issues that are unique to their communities.
That meeting is one of the clearest signals yet that Trump intends to consider a broad range of transportation interests in his legislation — not just urban and high-traffic areas.
“The administration wants to define infrastructure in a broad way,” said Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, who was at the meeting. “There was genuine excitement about us following up with specific language and suggestions.”
On Capitol Hill, some legwork is also underway. A Senate panel held a hearing last week to explore different ways to fund Trump’s infrastructure plan.
And Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has already visited the White House several times to discuss the issue. His panel is expected to have a major role in helping to shape an infrastructure package.
But there is still no consensus on how to pay for the bill or when a proposal will likely be released. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is still working to get her team in place.
Shuster acknowledged that infrastructure would have to take a backseat to ObamaCare repeal and tax reform, though he is still committed to working on the issue this year.
“The sooner the better … I’m looking at sometime maybe this summer, early fall,” Shuster told Bloomberg TV. “Hopefully we’ll get it done this year.”
The White House said that more details would emerge in the president’s budget, which is expected to land soon.
“There is a lot of work being done behind the scenes. And I don’t want to put a timeline on that,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. “There will be further discussion of that as we get closer to the budget.”