AASHTO Journal

Congress Treats Trump Investment Plan as Conversation Starter

Key members of Congress said they welcomed President Trump's infrastructure investment as starting the conversation and giving momentum to potential legislation, but GOP leaders held back from endorsing the plan itself and Democrats generally gave it poor reviews.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee that would take the lead in that chamber in writing legislation that would deal with the Highway Trust Fund.

He issued a statement emphasizing the general goal of Trump's plan without embracing any specifics. "President Trump is a champion for upgrading our country's aging roads, highways, bridges, and water infrastructure," Barrasso said. "America needs a robust infrastructure plan that prioritizes streamlining so needed projects can get done faster and for lower costs. I will work side by side with President Trump to make modernizing our infrastructure a reality.

"Infrastructure improvements will help all of America," he added. "This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. Let's work together to get this done."

caphouse1-041417.jpgThe chairman also told reporters he plans to hold a March 1 hearing on the president's proposal with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

In the House, Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said in a statement that he welcomed the release of Trump's infrastructure principles, but quickly pivoted to something the plan did not address – fixing the Highway Trust Fund for the long term.

"An infrastructure bill needs to be bipartisan, fiscally responsible and make real long-term investments in our nation," Shuster said. "By addressing the long-term sustainability of the Highway Trust Fund, exploring new ways to invest and ensuring the fast delivery of projects, we can rebuild and improve our highways, water infrastructure, public buildings, rail transportation and other infrastructure."

He continued: "There is widespread desire to work together on this effort. Passage of an infrastructure bill will require presidential leadership and bipartisan congressional cooperation. I look forward to the constructive debate ahead of us on this critical issue. Our constituents elected us to address the nation's problems, and we now have a golden opportunity to work together to do that."

Other Republican lawmakers took issue with some of the plan's details.

Politico reported that House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, told reporters that Congress was unlikely to embrace a major expansion of private activity bonds as Trump recommended in the plan to spur more private investment in projects, or to resurrect advance refunding of tax-advantaged bonds that Congress ended in the recent tax cut bill.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., fired off a sharp rebuttal to Trump's proposal in both his investment plan and his fiscal 2019 budget that Congress could sell off such government-owned infrastructure as the Tennessee Valley Authority's electric power transmission assets.

"This looney idea of selling TVA's transmission lines seems to keep popping up regardless of who is president," Alexander said. "It has zero chance of becoming law. When President Obama proposed this in 2013, all it did was undermine TVA's credit, raise interest rates on its debt, and threaten to increase electric bills for nine million Tennessee Valley ratepayers."

Democrats dismissed the plan, criticizing its low level of direct federal funding, lack of new revenue sources to pay for it and its heavy reliance on leveraging lots more funding from states, local governments and for-profit investors who might buy into toll roads and other revenue-generating projects.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., ranking EPW member, called the plan "unrealistic, inadequate and irresponsible."

In a lengthy critique, Carper said "a plan that relies even more heavily on cities and states that already bear the lion's share of funding responsibility for infrastructure projects sounds like a bad deal, especially for leaders from rural states. Infrastructure is, and has always been, a shared responsibility with state and local governments. President Trump is now opting to stick state and local governments with the bill, while offering absolutely no real ideas about how we will pay for this plan amidst soaring deficits."

And he said the president issued the plan "on the very same day that his budget proposes slashing $240 billion from existing infrastructure programs."

House T&I ranking member Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called the president's plan "embarrassingly small," and said when coupled with the budget proposal it "slashes real federal investments and shifts the burden to cash-strapped states and local governments. It would cut more than $168 billion from existing transportation and infrastructure programs to pay for Wall Street and foreign investors to toll our roads, and it would gut bedrock environmental, clean water and clean air protections under the guise of speeding up projects."

Carper and DeFazio called instead for bipartisan work to craft an investment plan to improve the nation's infrastructure and provide long-term project funding.

Questions regarding this article may be directed to editor@aashtojournal.org.

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