An infrastructure push from the White House is at best guidance that serves as a starting point for bipartisan legislation and at worst a scam laden with corporate handouts, according to lawmaker and interest group comments on the 55-page infrastructure principles issued Feb. 12.
The administration’s plan would redirect $200 billion in federal funding from existing programs in hopes of encouraging new infrastructure investments by state, local and the private sector to bring the total amount of funding to $1.5 trillion.
It also calls for a streamlined permitting process that reduces the length of time it takes for multi-agency review and permit issuance.
The reaction was predictably mixed, given the year-long drip of information of what an infrastructure proposal might include.
“We hope the release of the Trump infrastructure plan can be a starting point for a robust conversation on how best to make the critical investments in surface transportation,” Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), said in a statement.
AASHTO was one of several groups to call for a fix to the Highway Trust Fund, which faces a shortfall in 2022 and which the White House plan does not address. The trust fund is supported through the federal fuel tax, which has not been increased since 1993.
Others were less optimistic.
“This is not a real infrastructure plan—it is simply another scam, an attempt to sell our nation’s infrastructure and create windfall profit for Wall Street while rolling back environmental protections,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said in a statement, adding that the plan is “embarrassingly small.”
The administration would pay for the $200 billion over 10 years through cuts to existing transportation programs like transit grant programs and Obama-era transportation grants; these cuts are reflected in the president’s proposed budget, also released Feb. 12.
Half of the proposed federal appropriations, or $100 billion, would go to incentives for state, local and private investment in so-called core infrastructure projects. Projects will score higher based on the share of non-federal revenue expected. States can decide how to raise those funds—through user fees, taxes, or other means.
The proposal would include $20 billion for an expansion of low-interest transportation project loan programs and private activity bonds. It also calls for $50 billion to be set aside for rural states, to be allocated based on the preference of governors. Another $20 billion would go to unspecified “transformative programs” and the final $10 billion would go toward a capital financing fund.
In addition to cutting and reallocating funds from existing programs, the administration calls for reducing federal restrictions that keep states from making money off of existing infrastructure. It calls for flexibility to toll on Interstates and reinvest toll revenues in infrastructure and to commercialize rest areas. The administration would also let federal agencies divest of their assets—like Ronald Reagan Washington National and Dulles International airports—and allow agencies to decide how to spend the proceeds.
Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, co-chair of the bipartisan Building America’s Future, called the White House proposal a start that doesn’t go far enough.
“Our national government needs to make a commitment to our states with a substantial amount of direct, federal funding. We need to prioritize infrastructure with real dollars, not just empty promises, or we will continue to fall behind as a nation,” said LaHood.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, welcomed the White House’s “direction” and said he planned to pursue a bipartisan bill.
His counterpart on another committee of jurisdiction, Senate Environment and Public Works, Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) was more bullish, calling Trump a “champion” for infrastructure and heaping praise on the plan for prioritizing streamlining.
In the House, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said a bipartisan infrastructure bill needs to address the long-term sustainability of the Highway Trust Fund.
Shuster recently endorsed a gas tax hike, also supported by the Chamber of Commerce, and called for presidential leadership to help usher through an infrastructure bill this year.
But congressional leaders are already facing pressure to focus on regulatory reform and improved efficiency in federal spending, rather than raising the gas tax.
Americans for Prosperity, affiliated with billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch, Heritage Action, Americans for Tax Reform, and others for a total of 30 anti-tax groups wrote members Feb. 12 in opposition to a federal fuel increase.
“Rather than seeking to increase prices at the pump in the form of a tax hike, lawmakers should first reform the way existing transportation dollars are spent,” the group wrote.
Democrats and progressive groups accused the president of funny math and seizing on the poor state of the nation’s roads and bridges to benefit his wealthy, political benefactors.
“The president’s infrastructure proposal would do very little to make our ailing infrastructure better, but would put unsustainable burdens on our local government and lead to Trump tolls all over the country, all while undermining important protections like Buy America. It is a plan to appease his political allies, not to rebuild the country,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
Cutting transit programs to pay for infrastructure is “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a member of Environment and Public Works, and of Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said in a statement.
One thing everyone agrees on is that infrastructure should be a bipartisan issue.
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