Infrastructure spending bill sliding down agenda

President Trump’s change of heart on a core component of his $1 trillion infrastructure package has left the entire effort in doubt. 

Trump is now questioning behind closed doors whether public-private partnerships are an effective tool, raising fresh questions about how the massive rebuilding project would be paid for.  

{mosads}And the Trump administration, which initially promised to release a legislative package by late summer, likely won’t be focusing on the issue until after tax-reform legislation progresses. 

“We’ve seen their outline, but that’s continuing to be adjusted,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters Tuesday. “We hope they’re going to make it public in the next week or so. It will be more of an outline or principles, so we can move forward and put meat on the bones.” 

“We’ve been talking with the administration for the last several months, developing, talking, giving our advice on what we think is doable, what’s not doable,” he added. 

Once billed as a 100-day priority for the administration, Trump’s promise to rebuild U.S. roads, bridges, airports and other public works moved to the back burner as Congress wrestled with health-care legislation. 

The White House outlined a brief sketch of Trump’s infrastructure vision in his budget request earlier this year, vowing to release more details in the third quarter or early fall. 

But the rebuilding proposal continues to take a back seat to other priorities. For now, the No. 1 issue is tax reform. If and when a tax bill passes, which could take months, Republicans have talked of returning to health care. 

That dynamic has raised doubts about whether there will ever be time on the agenda for Trump’s infrastructure bill. Those doubts prompted Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to formally request more details from the administration about Trump’s plan and the path forward. 

“It’s disappointing that, nine months in, we still have not seen any substantive infrastructure proposal from the administration,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member on the Environment and Public Works panel. “You have to be willing to present your ideas to the public and say, ‘This is what we ought to do.’ ”

One of the biggest question marks hanging over the package is whether it will include a heavy emphasis on public-private partnerships. 

The administration has said all year that Trump’s rebuilding plan would spend $200 billion to leverage $1 trillion worth of overall investment. It would do so, officials said, by offering financial incentives to the private sector and state and local governments, which would then pick up the rest of the tab. 

“A great agency … has public-private partnerships. For every $1 of federal dollars, there’s $40 of private sector spending,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said on the “Charlie Rose Show” earlier this year. “We want to leverage as much private-sector dollars as possible to maximize the fixing of our infrastructure.” 

But Trump appears to have soured on the idea, according to Democrats who met with him last week at the White House. 

“He ruled out public-private partnerships,” Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters. “He hinted that was a public responsibility.” 

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) also said he had a “very good conversation” with Trump’s infrastructure policy adviser, DJ Gribbin, about whether the White House would still be pushing an idea it previously endorsed known as “asset-recycling.” The process entails selling off underused public assets to the private sector and using the proceeds to pay for other transportation projects. 

“I think the president was, from the people I know at the meeting, very explicit for his distaste for [public-private partnerships] generally, and that would certainly include asset-recycling,” DeFazio, ranking member on the Transportation Committee, told reporters last week. 

The White House said in a statement that there are “legitimate questions” about how public-private partnerships can be incorporated into an infrastructure package.

Public-private partnerships “have been a part of the administration’s research into generating the trillion-dollar infrastructure investment that the President has promised, but they are certainly not the silver bullet for all of our nation’s infrastructure problems, and we will continue to consider all viable options,” a White House spokeswoman said. 

The private sector model has drawn pushback from Democrats and rural Republicans. 

Lawmakers in rural areas are concerned that private firms would only be attracted to projects in populous, urban areas that can recoup their investment costs. 

And Democrats have slammed the idea as a “corporate giveaway” that will only lead to more tollways around the country. They would rather see direct federal spending on infrastructure. 

“I don’t have a positive sign that they’re willing to put up more money yet, but at least they’re not going to go down a dead-end path, which is asset-recycling,” DeFazio said. 

The potential shift in Trump’s strategy on infrastructure raises questions about how the hefty plan will be paid for and whether Republicans will be on board.  

“I don’t think it’s possible to do a bill that doesn’t have a mixture. It’s an all-of-the-above solution … [public-private partnerships] are a piece of a puzzle. States are contributing, they’re partnering,” Shuster said. “All of us working together is I think how we get to the $1 trillion number.” 

Fiscal conservatives, who have long been reluctant to back massive federal spending on transportation, have insisted that any infrastructure proposal be fully paid for and include a focus on public-private partnerships. They say the private sector can carry out transportation projects more efficiently than the federal government. 

While many Republicans are reserving judgment until they see Trump’s plan, some lawmakers on the Transportation Committee acknowledged their desire to include public-private partnerships. 

“I’m not drawing any lines in the sand, but … I’d hate to see them go away,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas).

Tags Blake Farenthold Paul Ryan Tom Carper
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