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Congress and White House agree to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on April 30 said President Trump was charged with determining next steps on an infrastructure proposal. (Video: The Washington Post)

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday after a meeting at the White House, that President Trump has agreed to invest $2 trillion to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure. Congressional leaders said they will return to the White House in three weeks to determine how to pay for it.

A public beset by potholes, failing bridges and troubled transit systems overwhelmingly has said in surveys that it supports the investment, but Congress has yet to come up with a funding solution.

Schumer (D-NY), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a delegation of congressional leaders spent about 90 minutes at the White House on Tuesday, emerging to discuss the meeting with reporters.

“We agreed on a number, which was very, very good, $2 trillion for infrastructure,” Schumer said. “Originally we had started a little lower; even the president was willing to push it up to $2 trillion. And that is a very good thing.”

The White House meeting was described as cordial, in stark contrast to a January meeting that turned into a televised clash over Trump’s proposed boarder wall. That meeting ended when Trump walked out of the room.

“It was a good, positive meeting,” said Peter A. DeFazio, (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “The President spent a good time listening, and then he had things to say on his own. It was pretty balanced. He responded to points that were made and made points of his own. “

Those at the table included Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, Ivanka Trump, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, and Shahira Knight, Kudlow’s deputy.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on April 30 said reopening negotiations on tax cuts would be a “nonstarter” in infrastructure talks. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I would say that 80 percent of it focused on infrastructure writ large,” DeFazio said. “We agreed upon a broad figure of $2 trillion of investment. Probably the largest chunk would go to roads, bridges, transit, but we’re also going to do waste water, harbors, [and] probably include airports. There was consensus on the need for universal broad band and some discussion of a more efficient energy grid to transmit energy over longer distances. There was some discussion of renewable energy, but no specifics on those.”

It is the second go around on infrastructure by the White House. Late in the 2016 presidential campaign, Wilbur Ross, who went on to become secretary of commerce, and Peter Navarro, who Trump appointed director of the office of trade and manufacturing policy, issued a joint paper saying the Trump administration could leverage billions in private investment through “muscular and implementable transactions” to fund infrastructure needs.

“We believe that this tax credit-assisted program could help finance up to a trillion dollars’ worth of projects over a ten-year period,” Ross and Navarro wrote 12 days before the election.

DJ Gribbin embraced their thinking after the election, taking ownership of Trump’s $1.5 trillion plan as the country’s first special assistant to the president on infrastructure.

But with many in Congress looking askance at the notion of private investment — it might see a return on highway and bridge tolls, but not transit systems — the concept faltered and Gribbin departed the White House more than a year ago.

With his departure, Trump’s promise to deliver “the biggest and boldest infrastructure plan in the last half-century” within his first 100 days in office became a matter for more careful consideration.

In a preamble to Tuesday’s meeting, a coalition of business and labor leaders pushed for resolution of they called an “infrastructure crisis.”

Neil Bradley, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called the Monday’s meeting a “a potentially historic opportunity” in a conference call with reporters.

“Quite frankly, we’re counting on Speaker Pelosi and President Trump to break the gridlock in Washington so we can end the gridlock on our streets,” Bradley said. “Why are we so hopeful? Because today we have business and labor united behind the idea that we can come together on a common sense solution of financing the improvements that our nation needs.”

Bradley said that Congress and the White House need to “have the political courage to come out and do it.”

The most immediate way to pump money into infrastructure is to raise the federal gas tax, which has been at 18.4 cents per gallon since President Ronald Reagan agreed to an increase in 1993. The federal tax is not indexed to inflation, which has increased by more than 70 percent since the last increase.

As Congress has failed to act — funding highway bills with what Bradley on Monday dismissed as “gimmicks” — at least 30 states have raised their own gas taxes to fill the void in infrastructure funding.

During the congressional session before Democrats took control of the House, DeFazio introduced legislation to increase the federal gas tax, index it to inflation and then inaugurate the process of taxing cars and trucks for vehicle miles traveled, eventually augmenting or replacing the gas tax. While his proposal gained no traction, he has said that he plans to tackle the issue again in the next few weeks.

“It’s roads and bridges and transit, yes, but it’s a lot more than that and we’d like to go as big as we can out of the gate. We expect our congressional leaders to work with this administration, ” Tom Trotter, legislative affairs representative for the AFL-CIO said Monday on the conference call.

The U.S. Chamber and the American Trucking Association (ATA) agree that a gas tax hike is needed to fund infrastructure improvements.

ATA vice president Bill Sullivan said truckers pay about half the money that flows into the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for highway, bridge and transit improvements.

“It strikes us that when you have the biggest payer into the highway trust fund asking to pay more, it should tell our policymakers that it is truly the time to do it,” said Sullivan, whose truckers pay a 24.4 cent federal tax on diesel fuel.

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