Infrastructure dreams in limbo as Trump, Republicans running out of time in 2017 Congress

President Donald J. Trump is still expressing confidence that short-on-specifics long-term infrastructure funding plan would gain bipartisan backing in a fractured legislative environment in the waning days of this year’s Congress.

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President Donald J. Trump is still expressing confidence that short-on-specifics long-term infrastructure funding plan would gain bipartisan backing in a fractured legislative environment in the waning days of this year’s Congress.

But he’s also expressed confidence in ending Obamacare, giving the middle class a tax cut, modernize immigration laws and, oh yes, building that wall against Mexico’s good wishes.

In another sign of waning confidence that anything regarding infrastructure will be done this year, Trump has scrapped plans for an infrastructure advisory council after two similar panels were disbanded amid backlash to Trump from corporate America. The President's Advisory Council on Infrastructure, which was to have advised Trump on the what, when and how of how to improve this nation’s roads and bridges, has been scrapped.

Administration officials now say infrastructure plans have been pushed back until the end of the year—after Congress tries to handle complicated, delicate matters involving lifting the U.S. debt ceiling and corporate tax reform.

Gary Cohn, director of the president's National Economic Council, said the infrastructure plan would "come on the heels" of a tax overhaul.

"We hope it's this year," Cohn told Politico.

As with most things Trump, that probably means not this year—if at all.

The harsh reality is the first session of the 115th Congress is rapidly coming to an end as well – and the harsh political climate in Washington prevents anything except essential government business from getting done.

According to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) own posted congressional schedule, as of Oct. 1 both houses of Congress are scheduled to meet at the same time for merely 30 days before the end of the year. And with 2018 being an election year, that further dampens hopes for any sort of sizeable, effective infrastructure plan.

Trump has mentioned $1 trillion in infrastructure plans—but has never gone into detail on how the money will be raised, where it will be spent and how it will be utilized. Details, as with all things Trump, are to be determined.

The White House web site lists a trillion-dollar price tag for Trump’s so-called plan. But it devotes just 314 words to outlining its specifics.

And depending on to whom you talk to in Washington, a major infrastructure plan is either coming – or is doomed because Trump and the Republican-led Congress first must solve the difficult and complex work of tax reform.

Tax reform has long been a dream of Republicans, who say privately this is a “once in a generation” chance to do it. If Congress takes up tax reform, that takes all the oxygen out of infrastructure, insiders say. That’s because on these big issues, Congress usually has an inability to do more than one thing at a time.

“We’ll get the infrastructure. And actually, infrastructure is something that I think we’ll have bipartisan support on,” Trump told reporters at Trump Tower in New York City before his bombastic Aug. 15 press conference veered off to explain his thoughts on racial violence in Charlottesville, Va. “I actually think, I actually think Democrats will go along with the infrastructure [plan].”

But that kind of talk has happened before with Trump. On June 8, Trump predicted his infrastructure program “would take off like a rocket ship.”

So far, that rocket ship has been grounded.

Trump talks about a $1 billion infrastructure plan—but that should not mean $1 trillion in actual spending dollars. The way the IF plan appears to be structured,  it appears the goal is to raise $800 billion in private capital with $200 billion of federal funds and an assortment of tax breaks to attract public-private partnerships.

There’s hardly any question any more about need. Recently the Census Bureau reported government spending on public works amounted to 1.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product in the second quarter. That’s the lowest record ever reported, the bureau said.

Ken Simonson, former chief economist for the American Trucking Associations and now with a similar post at Associated General Contractors of America, recently told the New York Times that many states were overwhelmed by past-due infrastructure needs. For example, Illinois recently suspended work on 900 projects because of monetary restraints.

Clearly, the states cannot rebuild every road and shaky bridge on their own.

Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, said the federal government “must have a strong role” in funding our national highway infrastructure as the preservation and promotion of interstate commerce is one of the core responsibilities of the federal government established by the Constitution.

“For decades, we have relied on the Highway Trust Fund – primarily funded by the federal fuel tax that we all pay at the pump when we fill up our tanks – to help repair and maintain our nation’s roads and bridges,” Spear said. “But the Trust Fund is on fumes and the government has had to resort to general fund transfers to try to keep pace with maintenance.”

Spear said recently that ATA has testified before Congress “at least 19 times: since 2006, speaking out in favor of raising the federal tax on fuels—18.4 cents on gasoline, 24.4 cents on diesel, unchanged since 2003. But despite such hands-on lobbying by ATA, UPS, FedEx, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other heavyweights, Congress is fearful of raising any tax because of a right-wing backlash.

The right-leaning Americans for Prosperity is one of the few groups commending President Trump after news that he will sign an executive order requiring federal agencies to cooperate and coordinate in the early stages of major construction and infrastructure projects. The aim is reducing confusion, duplicative requests for information, and late-stage changes.

Americans for Prosperity says on its website it exists “to recruit, educate, and mobilize citizens in support of the policies and goals of a free society at the local, state, and federal level, helping every American live their dream.”

AFP claims it has more than 3.2 million activists across the nation. That local infrastructure that includes 36 state chapters has been calling for the administration to include major streamlining of the permitting process to the significant plans they have underway in the infrastructure space.

“We’re pleased that the Trump administration is continuing its effort to slice through burdensome, duplicative processes across government,” AFP Vice President of External Affairs Christine Harbin said in a statement.

She said in the federal infrastructure space, permitting holdups can add years to projects that would otherwise be improving infrastructure and contributing to the economy.

“This is a significant step in reducing the duplication and wait times, one of the critical reforms needed to these projects,” Harbin added.

About the Author

John D. Schulz
John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. John is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis.

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