Lawmakers left with more questions than answers on Trump infrastructure plan
President Trump is pressing Congress to take action on an infrastructure plan, but lawmakers say they remain confused over how the project would be funded, what it would include and how grand it will really be.
Trump’s pitch for a national rebuilding program has grown significantly in size since the campaign trail, where he initially called for a $550 billion infrastructure package.
In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, he called for a plan of at least $1.5 trillion, after earlier this month suggesting an investment between $1.7 and $1.8 trillion during in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Regardless of the cost, Trump has not yet identified any offsets or funding sources to accompany the rebuilding initiative.
That has left lawmakers in both parties questioning how the administration will be able to reach its goal of securing over $1 trillion for infrastructure.
“I think there’s going to be a strong push for a significant infrastructure package. I don’t know if at the end of the day you actually get to the trillion and half a dollars. That’s a new number,” Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said after Trump’s inaugural State of the Union speech.
“What you’ve heard traditionally over the last couple of weeks is more in the order of $1 trillion, which would be a hard enough lift. Trillion and a half is a really tough lift, because the difficult question is: how do you pay for it?”
Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), who sits on the Joint Economic Committee, which has been critical of the administration’s suggestions, on Wednesday told reporters that “a substantial amount” of the funding must come from direct federal investment.
“But the real discussion has to be, and this is where there was no clarity from either the president or congressional Republicans, which is what’s the amount of money that’s going to come from the federal government,” Delaney said.
The White House has floated several figures for an overall infrastructure package and blown through numerous deadlines to release particulars about a potential plan, but the federal government is only expected to chip in $200 billion, with the hope that the private sector and local governments will pay for the rest of the tab.
Details are slowly trickling out from the administration, which included additional information Tuesday night in an email to reporters during Trump’s address.
The fact sheet lined up with a document that leaked last week and purported to reveal the White House’s infrastructure plan. Both memos said half of the federal seed money would go toward an incentive program to encourage local governments to invest in infrastructure projects, while a quarter would be allocated toward a pot for rural regions.
While lawmakers are largely encouraged that infrastructure is on the table, Democrats are pushing the federal government’s historic role in building projects, arguing state and local governments cannot afford the efforts and private entity investment won’t make up for any shortfall.
“To some extent, all of these numbers are kind of made-up,” said Delaney. “The number that is really relevant is the amount of federal dollars that go into a variety of programs.”
Trump has long called for an investment to repair U.S. roads, bridges, airports and other public works, but his critics were quick to point out that his speech to Congress lacked details.
“So we were all quite looking forward to hearing some details last night from President Trump,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told a conference call of reporters the day after Trump’s address. “But he completely failed to lay out a competent vision for such infrastructure investment.”
Merkley, who sits on both the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Environment and Public Works Committee, slammed the GOP’s push for a focus on public-private partnerships, arguing this strategy will ultimately help Wall Street and hurt Americans.
The concerns, however, are not purely partisan. Republicans are also questioning how Congress can craft a package and provide funding to rebuild.
“I wanted more details, but that’s going to come,” Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) told The Hill after the president’s speech.
Graves, also a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the latest White House figure is “bold,” but still expressed optimism that Congress can work toward a bipartisan solution to fix the nation’s ailing infrastructure.
“We’ll have to find out how we get there. It’s realistic if we can find the funding, but it’s a strong number,” he said.
Some lawmakers and industry groups have proposed an increase to the federal gas tax to contribute to an infrastructure overhaul. Money from the 18.4-cent tax goes into the Highway Trust Fund to pay for road projects, but that levy has not been raised since 1993, eroding the fund’s purchasing power over time.
That option has received mixed reviews from lawmakers in both parties. While the tax increase is deeply unpopular among many Republicans, Democrats argue raising the gas tax won’t be enough to finance a package.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who chairs the New Democrat Coalition, said the gas tax must be an “important part of the overall mix of revenue,” but declined to offer a full-throated endorsement of a hike.
“We think of ourselves as forward-looking. And any hesitation on our part is associated with the fact that more and more vehicles out there aren’t burning gas,” Himes said at a press conference, adding that the gas tax is “a fading source of revenue.”
Still, industry and business groups have rallied behind a push to increase the federal gas fee, noting the Highway Trust Fund needs a boost in revenue to remain solvent.
“The ball is in Capitol Hill’s court,” the American Road & Transportation Builders Association said in a statement after the State of the Union.
“If scientists can clone monkeys, Congress ought to be able to figure out how to raise federal dollars to fix the Highway Trust Fund and modernize our choking National Freight Network. Those are the top two infrastructure priorities.”
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