The House hearing intended to raise the curtain on President Trump’s call for infrastructure investment was into its third hour Wednesday when the time came for Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) to speak up.
“We’re having the same conversation,” she said. “I keep hearing the same rhetoric without action.”
She had a point. Congress, and particularly the House Transportation Committee, has for years lamented the deterioration of roads, bridges and transit systems without finding significant new funding to repair them. Now, as the 115th Congress debuts, with Republicans in control of both chambers and the White House, the question reoccurs.
“Finding the money is the 900-pound gorilla in the room,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Tex.).
Trump campaigned on a promise of a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure, presenting a white paper that said he would grant an 82 percent tax credit to lure investors to commit to private-public ventures.
None of the corporate chief executives called before the committee Wednesday said they thought sufficient private money would surface to meet the need.
“We at Federal Express support an increase in the gas tax,” said chief executive and founder Frederick W. Smith. He said he told the Trump administration that on Tuesday.
In addition, Smith said he favors development of system to tax electric and hybrid vehicles, which effectively evade a gas tax, based on the miles they travel, and reforming the corporate tax rate to bring home offshore cash to fund infrastructure investment.
“There would be hundreds of billions of dollars that would come into the country to pay for infrastructure,” Smith said.
Finding any additional revenue, let alone the $3.7 trillion estimated to meet infrastructure needs by 2020, has been the congressional challenge since the existing source, the gas-tax-funded Highway Trust Fund, began to run below meeting the need. The funding for the current transportation bill was bolstered in 2015 from sources described Wednesday as “gimmicks” and “funny money.”
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) responded with a proposal to raise new revenue by indexing the 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1993, and then using the revenue to leverage bond investment.
“Gas would go up 2 cents a gallon,” he said, glancing around the room at his fellow committee members. “Anybody think they’re going to lose their election over that?”
In addition to Smith, the hearing’s panel included David W. MacLennan, chairman of Cargill; Ludwig Willisch, head of BMW of North America; Mary V. Andringa of Vermeer; and Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.
After the hearing, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), spoke briefly to reporters, saying he was eager to meet with newly confirmed Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
“We’re going to be working with the administration very closely to shape it,” Shuster said. “They can shape things at the White House, but it has to come up here to the Hill to pass. We in Congress know there’s need for investment in infrastructure, and the American people understand it.
“Whether you’re at home with your kids or whether you’re running a major corporation that moves packages around the world, everybody utilizes the system.”
Shuster has said he anticipates that a massive tax reform bill will be a necessary first step, and he hopes that will be finalized before this summer so infrastructure plans can move forward.
Asked where the infrastructure money would be found, he said, “That’s something we have to work through in the next several months. It’s a key. It’s the $1 trillion question.”