Engineering and construction officials, waiting for many months for concrete progress on major infrastructure investment legislation, welcomed the news that President Donald Trump and top congressional Democrats had agreed to pursue a “big and bold” multiyear bill that could total $2 trillion. But big questions remain—particularly how to cover the cost. There also are hints that the price tag may be reduced.
In announcing the agreement on Apr. 30, both sides punted for now on a funding source but said they would meet in late May to discuss revenue options. [View c-Span video of Democrats press briefing here.]
Stephen Sandherr, Associated General Contractors of America chief executive officer, says, “You have the president of the United States and congressional leaders … talking about the need to do an infrastructure bill, with a big number. That’s the good news.” Sandherr adds, “The flip side of that is how do you pay for it and what’s the scope going to be?”
Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president, says that some Democrats favor a wide-ranging package. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)—who announced the agreement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)—did indicate that the plan would include highways, bridges and water infrastructure and have “a big emphasis on broadband.”
He said it also would cover electric power, “so that we can bring clean energy from one end of the country to the other.” Schumer said there would be “several other” elements in the plan, too.
But Hansen says a comprehensive measure “may be almost too broad.” He says, “This thing could collapse of its own weight given how much money we’re talking about here.” He adds, “I think $2 trillion is just so gargantuan.” That eye-catching number may turn out to be soft.
Size of package may shrink
Schumer said, “Originally, we had started a little lower” than that amount. He added, “Even the president was eager to push it up to $2 trillion, and that is a very good thing.” In a May 4 Twitter post,Trump said an infrastructure plan is “badly needed.” But he seemed to leave substantial wiggle room on the total, saying the proposal he’s “looking hard at” is between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.
Steve Hall, senior vice president for advocacy and external affairs at the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), says, “I think the number is probably going to change quite a bit between now and when we start to see legislation, but the fact that they are, on a bipartisan basis, focusing on [infrastructure] is a good thing.”
One worrisome sign about the outlook for infrastructure legislation was the pessimistic view about the plan from Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
And Republican congressional leaders, none of whom was at the Apr. 30 meeting, already have declared one possible revenue raiser off the table—changing provisions of the 2017 tax-cut law to increase certain levies, with the added revenue going to infrastructure. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Apr. 30 that revising the tax law is “a nonstarter.”
Gas tax could play big role
Some in industry favor increasing the gas tax or taking a similar step. Dave Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association president and chief executive officer, said in a statement, “The foundational pillar of any long-term infrastructure package is a sustainable, growing, user-fee based revenue stream for the Highway Trust Fund.”
Bauer added, “It remains the linchpin for any final and meaningful deal between the Trump administration and Congress.”
Some Republicans are pro-infrastructure. But Hansen says some also “don’t want to deficit spend and yet they don’t want to raise the gas tax. So they’re really in a quandary.”
Hall says, “The president’s going to play the critical role here.” He adds, “I think a lot of Republicans will line up behind him if he makes it clear that the gas tax is on the table.”
A gas-tax hike would almost certainly apply just to highway and transit parts of an infrastructure package. Where would new money come from for water, energy and other non-transportation programs?
Neil Bradley, U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive vice president, told reporters in an Apr. 29 briefing that “there are lots of options” for areas outside of highways and transit, including revolving loan funds, bonds and increases in traditional appropriations.
Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, says Congress will want to have some legislative results to show voters in the 2020 elections and infrastructure may fill the bill.
Speaking on May 7 at ACEC’s annual conference, in Washington, D.C.,Tymon said, “I do think there is a window here for us to do something on infrastructure funding.” He says that could mean a standalone bill, speedy passage of a new surface-transportation reauthorization well before the Sept. 30, 2020, deadline “or maybe a series of smaller bills.”
Mulvaney's skeptical view
Mulvaney is skeptical about the infrastructure plan. Speaking at a conference in California the day the infrastructure deal was announced, he said that because of the years it can take to get projects’ environmental reviews completed, there would be little to show in the short term for enacting an infrastructure bill.
Mulvaney said he has told Trump that no matter the amount of funding, “You won’t see a single lane of … road paved before the end of your second term.”
Mulvaney said that agreeing to his desire to change environmental laws will be “a very difficult place for some [Democrats] to go, and I think that may be the place where the discussions break down.”
He also was skeptical about Democrats’ ability to work out deals with the White House on major legislation while also pursuing investigations involving the administration. Mulvaney said, “The mantra we use around the office is [Democrats] either have to choose to legislate or litigate.”
Hall says Mulvaney is “certainly entitled to his own opinion.” But he adds that increased investment in infrastructure “is one of the … original pillars of President Trump’s agenda. And if you want to take attention in a positive way, away from some of those other controversies, this is a great way to do it—get both sides to agree on a bipartisan effort to lift the economy.”
Story updated on 5//9/2019 with new tweet from President Trump, plus new and additional comments from engineering, construction and transportation officials.