Infrastructure is one of those rare issues that transcends ideology. It unites Republicans and Democrats, the business community and labor unions. Nearly everyone agrees that U.S. transportation systems are in need of massive upgrades to be functional and, frankly, safe.
The American Society of Civil Engineers consistently grades U.S. infrastructure a D, which it defines as “poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life. A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of serious concern with strong risk of failure.”
Now, in the midst of the ongoing government shutdown, President Trump is reportedly meeting with White House staff to revive talks on introducing a 13-year infrastructure package, Reuters reported Friday.
Trump has repeatedly cited infrastructure as the one issue he believes his administration could work on with Democrats. And on the surface, that makes sense. It’s a universally held priority that isn’t bogged down in partisanship, so why shouldn’t Congress and the White House be able to come together for this one achievement?
Well, lots of reasons.
Infrastructure is like that friend you truly do like and really mean it when you say you need to get together, but life seems to always get in the way. For the past decade or so, other issues have always gotten in the way.
Let’s go back to 2009, President Barack Obama’s first year in office. He was pushing through a stimulus package that originally included serious investments in major transportation projects. Ultimately, though, that money went mostly to maintenance, like road repaving, rather than building anew.
Around the same time, Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, put together an ambitious and expensive plan to dramatically overhaul the nation’s highways, bridges and transit systems. Accomplishing this would require new revenue, possibly in the form of increased gas taxes.
It seemed as though Oberstar was going to make this happen. But on the day of his big reveal, the lawmaker got a call from the Obama White House saying it wouldn’t support his plan because there were other priorities, namely health care, for which it needed to save all of its political capital.
Two years later, Democrats lost the House, Oberstar lost his seat in the tea party wave, and any hope of something truly revolutionary on infrastructure died.
Enter Donald Trump, who often refers to U.S. infrastructure as “Third World” and promised throughout his campaign to modernize it. After the election, Trump seemed keen to make this happen. But inevitably, things fizzled. A running joke in the first two years of the Trump administration was that every week was supposed to be infrastructure week, until some bombshell news got in the way.
When his administration finally did reveal an infrastructure plan, it was big on ideas and short on ways to fund them, which has always been the rub. Moreover, his infrastructure plan included one special project: construction of a wall along the southern border.
“We’re getting that sucker built!” Trump said during a speech meant to be about his infrastructure plan in March 2018. “That’s what I do. I build. I was always very good at building. It was my best thing. I think better than being president, I was always very good at building.”
But for the two years that Republicans held all of Congress, they never took up the White House’s infrastructure plan, instead opting to prioritize tax cuts.
So to summarize, when a Democrat controlled the White House and all of Congress, infrastructure was put on the back burner. When a Republican then had control of them, it’s also not taken up seriously.
How is a divided government, which cannot even agree on funding the government for what is now 28 days, come together to solve a problem so big that even one-party rule in Washington didn’t have the political will to tackle? Couple that with the acrimony to come from the Democrats' investigations into Trump and the pending release of the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and it’s hard to imagine how the White House and Democrats will find common ground.
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), the chairman of the House Transportation panel, told Reuters that absent “real money, real investment” to rebuild U.S. infrastructure, it’s not going to work.
Experts in transportation policy have long been in agreement that the best way to raise a lot of money quickly to invest in highway and bridge repairs, which affects the most Americans, is to nominally raise the federal tax on gasoline sales, which was last increased in 1993. The money the tax brings has not kept pace with the need. General treasury has been raided many times to shore up the funds because there’s just not enough revenue coming in.
It’s hard enough to imagine this White House and this Congress getting anything done, let alone something that requires new funding.
Especially if the wall is involved.