The tax overhaul passed by the House on Thursday would make planned reconstruction projects at the Washington region's airports more expensive and could undercut other key infrastructure ventures, state and local officials said.
The House bill ends federal tax benefits on a kind of debt known as private activity bonds. The bonds are often issued by governments or quasi-governmental organizations, airport authorities, and can be used to finance projects that benefit the public as well as private firms, such as a terminal that helps travelers as well as restaurant owners.
As it stands today, investors who buy those bonds are willing to accept low interest rates because they generally don't have to pay federal tax on the interest earnings, said Emilie R. Ninan, a bond attorney and the public finance chair at law firm Ballard Spahr. The House bill eliminates the federal tax exemption. That means investors' "costs are going to go up, and as a result they'll have to pass that along," Ninan said.
The Senate tax bill, which is moving quickly through that chamber, does not make that change, so the versions will have to be reconciled.
The change means a $1.8 billion effort to relocate security checkpoints and build a commuter concourse at Reagan National Airport to ease congestion, and to make other improvements there and at Dulles International Airport, would be saddled with more than $300 million in additional financing fees over 30 years, said Andrew Rountree, chief financial officer for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
"It's going to be more expensive for the airports authority to build its infrastructure," Rountree said.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who represents Northern Virginia and voted for the bill, said in a statement that it would bring "tax cuts to hard-working taxpayers and businesses," as well as aid the economy. But, she said, "tax reform is a process."
The fact that private activity bonds are maintained in the Senate version shows "this is still very much a point of active consideration, and I will be relaying the concerns of my localities and constituents on the issue," Comstock said.
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said the commonwealth has issued more private activity bonds for transportation than any other state, more than $2 billion. A $3.5 billion project to add toll and carpool lanes on Interstate 66 outside the Beltway included more than $700 million in such bonds, said Layne, a Republican.
The bonds were issued earlier this month, so the project would not be affected. But Layne estimates that such a shift would have added $120 million in financing costs if it applied. The bonds are "key to attracting private equity," Layne said, and that is important for other future projects. "This would be a significant impact to Virginia."
If the House version becomes law, it could also throw off prospects for the Trump administration's promised infrastructure plan, said Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation at the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank.
Feigenbaum said eliminating private activity bonds "will make it impossible to effectively leverage the private financing needed" for Trump's plan, which envisions $200 million in federal spending and $800 million in private, state and local investment.
"The cost to borrow money for projects would go up significantly," Feigenbaum said. "Government would have to raise taxes (likely gas or sales) to build an equivalent amount of infrastructure."
A spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee, which led drafting of the tax changes in the GOP-controlled House, said the bill will "continue to help state and local governments finance important public works projects by maintaining the tax-preferred status" of "public purpose" bonds, which would include traditional municipal bonds. Those tax-free bonds are the foundation of countless public projects and have deeply ingrained constituencies.
The committee spokesman added that the bill also delivers "greater accountability to taxpayers by removing this special status for private activity bonds, which directly benefit private individuals and entities."
But those bonds can also benefit the public, some officials said. They were expected to be a part of a multibillion-dollar project to address traffic congestion on major roads such as Interstates 495 and 270, according to Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn.
Rahn, a Republican, said officials will have to wait for private partners to outline potential cost increases, but they will not be a "deal killer" for such a massive project. Still, "this is really bad policy by Congress. At the same time the administration is trying to encourage private investment into our infrastructure," Congress is taking away "one of the pieces that make it work on medium- and smaller-sized projects," he said.
Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said the effort to toss out private activity bonds was not borne of sound policy judgment. There are arguments for and against private funding in infrastructure, he noted. Instead, he said, House proponents of tax cuts benefiting the wealthy "are looking under the couch cushions for any revenue they can find."
The change, which would affect not only transportation infrastructure but also projects built by hospitals, universities and other nonprofit groups, would raise less than $40 billion, DeGood said. The tax cuts total $1.5 trillion.