After an autumn filled with rhetoric about spending like never before on roads, bridges and transit, the winter’s earnest work toward achieving that goal begins Wednesday on Capitol Hill in what may prove to be one of the few bipartisan endeavors of the Trump administration.
Matching campaign promises and beliefs long held by many lawmakers with the money to pay for them will be a neat trick, a collision between demands for budget austerity and the desire to infuse infrastructure with cash.
“We at the national level have to figure out how we’re going to make these investments, and now we have a president who is pounding on the table saying we’ve got to do it,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who figures to become the first among equals in shaping the congressional road map.
He will begin the public process Wednesday with a hearing that draws together four CEOs whose corporations depend on the transportation system — FedEx, Cargill, BMW of North America and Vermeer — and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
What to do about the country’s deteriorating infrastructure has been the subject of endless hand wringing and many a speech on Capitol Hill. Roads, bridges and transit systems — along with other networks like the electrical grid — are nearing the end of their natural lifetime and are beset by congestion and breakdowns.
Putting it all to rights would cost an estimated $3.7 trillion by 2020, money that was not easily found as federal debt mounted and many in Congress sought to shift much of the responsibility for infrastructure from Washington to the state level.
Even as the stars seem aligned for the Republican Party — a new president who says he plans to raise $1 trillion for infrastructure and whose party controls both houses of Congress — there is the immense challenge of setting priorities and, most significantly, finding the money.
“How do we solve it? I’m not sure yet,” Shuster said in an interview Monday. “We’ve talked about repatriation, people talk about the gas tax, people talk about tolling.”
He neither discounted nor embraced a proposal that emerged in the later stages of Trump’s campaign, one that would grant private investors an 82 percent tax credit if they put their money into infrastructure.
Shuster said private investors aren’t likely to fund projects in the largely rural southwestern Pennsylvania district he represents.
“Investors won’t come in unless there’s some sort of return” Shuster said. “There are things that you can do with tax [breaks] that will attract the dollars, but I think the states can’t do it without the federal government coming to the table with a piece of the funding solution.”
And tolling existing interstate highways, which might draw private investment repair money, is “a non-starter,” he said.
Shuster sees Wednesday’s hearing as the first of several that will help map out a strategy, even as staff in both the House and Senate work on plans to shape a package of legislation on infrastructure and find ways to fund it. He anticipates that a massive tax reform bill will be a necessary first step that will provide the money, and he hopes that will be finalized before this summer so infrastructure plans can more forward.
With most Democrats eager to join Shuster in a push for more money for roads, bridges and transit, the biggest pushback may come from members of his own party, those who couple their desire for a more compact federal government with a belief that transportation is best handled on the state and local level.
In part to address their fears, Shuster had painted on the committee room wall an excerpt on the duties of the federal government from Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution that says Congress should “regulate commerce” and “establish . . . roads.”