Washington — President Donald Trump’s proposal to spend $1 trillion to improve the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure has been stuck in neutral as he struggles to advance his legislative priorities in Congress.
But the president who built his national reputation as a deal-maker struck an accord with Democrats in Washington last week to extend funding for the federal government past a Sept. 30 deadline and lift the U.S. debt ceiling. To some, that signals a greater possibility of funding roads this fall.
“Democrats and Republicans should be able to find common ground on this,” said Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department. “To the degree that this signals a willingness (on the president’s part) to bring Democrats and Republicans together, we think that’s a good path forward. Given the extremes we have seen on the Republican side, he is going to need Democrats to do this.”
The Trump administration has identified the infrastructure proposal as one its top priorities, but they so far have talked only of committing $200 billion in federal money. Administration officials have said the federal seed money can be used to “incentivize” up to $800 billion in private, state and local spending on infrastructure.
At the plan’s core is the assumption that private companies would enter into “public-private” partnerships with local and state governments to help pay for expensive road projects. Democrats and other critics have questioned whether private companies will be willing to pony up enough money to pay for the remaining 80 percent of the president’s road-funding proposal.
“Two hundred billion over 10 years is not $1 trillion,” Willis said. “If you want to do $1 trillion, a big chunk of that needs be federal dollars. The private sector is always going to have a role, but to expect that you can only build a road or transit project if you can turn a profit is unrealistic and it’s not going to work.”
The traditional source for U.S. transportation funding has been revenue collected by the federal gas tax, which is currently 18.4 cents per gallon. The federal government usually spends about $50 billion per year on roads, but the gas tax only brings in $34 billion. The gas tax has not been raised since 1993, and there is little appetite in Washington for doing so now.
Congress has turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the infrastructure funding gap, most recently transferring $70 billion to help cover five years worth of transportation spending that will run out in 2020.
Jim Tymon, COO for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which represents state transportation departments, said there is not as much time left for lawmakers to figure out a way to pay for roads as it may appear.
State departments of transportation put together multiyear plans. He said: “It’s hard to put together a five-year plan in 2018 that goes through 2022 or 2023 when you don’t know what the federal program is going to look like in 2021.”
Tymon said state transportation officials initially believed they would see a bigger federal investment in roads in their jurisdictions when Trump talked about pushing for infrastructure on the campaign trail.
“A lot of folks in the transportation community thought we were going to see $1 trillion in cash,” he said. “It’s still better than not having anything, but the issue of financing to get $1 trillion versus funding to get to $1 trillion is a big difference.”
Adding to the uncertainty, Trump’s relationships with the business community are frayed. Two panels of CEOs disbanded after the president’s remarks after the violence in Charlottesville. Amid the fallout, the White House pulled the plug on Trump’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council, which was still being formed.
The president has focused in the short term on reducing the red tape for getting U.S. infrastructure projects approved. He signed an executive order in August that establishes a two-year goal to process environmental paperwork for major infrastructure projects.
“It took 11 months to build the Empire State Building. But today, it can take as long as a decade and much more than that — many, many stories where it takes 20 and 25 years just to get approvals to start construction of a fairly routine highway,” he said in a news conference at Trump Tower. “Highway builders must get up to 16 different approvals involving nine different federal agencies governed by 29 different statutes. One agency alone can stall a project for many, many years, and even decades.”
The comments were immediately overshadowed at the event when Trump doubled-down on his remarks about Charlottesville that critics said gave the appearance that he supported white supremacists.
Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the independent Washington-based Eno Center for Transportation think tank, said Trump will have to do more than cut red tape if he wants to make noticeable improvements to the nation’s infrastructure.
“We certainly need to get projects done faster and we need to streamline, but the evidence shows environmental reviews are not the main culprit,” he said. “A lot of it is concerns about the budget.”
Puentes noted that the Trump administration has talked about broadening its definition of infrastructure to include energy and broadband projects.
He added that Trump’s willingness to cut a deal with Democrats on other agenda items “signals some things can get done” in Washington. He added, however: “Infrastructure has proven to be a tough nut to crack.
“The key is not getting people to agree that infrastructure matters. The case has been made,” he said. “We need an infrastructure week to sort of figure out how we’re going to get to get things done and how are we going to pay for it.”