Business leaders and communities around the country are expressing alarm that the bitter partisan impasse in Washington is paralyzing efforts to revamp the nation’s deteriorating and outdated infrastructure.
As millions of Americans hit the road for the Memorial Day weekend, they traveled across aging bridges, on crumbling roads and through tunnels in dire need of repair — infrastructure that earned a D+ grade in the most recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
At the same time, President Trump, who campaigned in 2016 touting his skills as both a builder and a dealmaker, has been unable to reach a grand bargain with Congress, further dimming hopes that upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges and tunnels will bypass the capital’s infamous gridlock anytime soon.
Trump, who has repeatedly said he wants to improve the nation’s infrastructure, abruptly walked out of a meeting with leading Democrats on Wednesday and declared there would be no “investment” until congressional investigations into his personal finances and administration cease. Democrats accused Trump of being unable to rise to the occasion and match the political savvy of previous presidents whose names are associated with the country’s most ambitious infrastructure projects.
The partisan stalemate — now immortalized as a running joke about the White House’s never-ending “Infrastructure Week” — belies the growing and costly problem. The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its 2017 report, estimated that funding would need to be increased by $2 trillion over 10 years to make up the infrastructure gap.
“We can no longer afford to wait,” said ASCE Executive Director Tom Smith. “Our infrastructure problem is not going to go away, and it’s certainly not going to get better with time.”
Local leaders have grown frustrated with the political stalemate.
“It’s exhausting,” said MarySue Barrett, president of the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit that advocates sustainable regional development. “We’re desperate in Illinois and in Chicago for infrastructure investment to jump-start our economy and are beyond frustrated that the federal government is not our partner.”
Before things blew up, both Trump and congressional Democrats were speaking optimistically about the prospects for a deal, not only to restore infrastructure but also to bring broadband to rural America.
Last month, a cheerful group of Democrats that included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) emerged from the White House to announce that they had agreed with Trump to push for a $2 trillion infrastructure package. The number — twice what Trump had proposed just a year earlier — quickly became a flash point as Republicans distanced themselves from it and Democrats called on the White House to provide ideas for how to fund such a massive spending project.
Some Republicans saw a setup.
Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said earlier this month that Democrats’ approach to their initial meeting with the president — especially their decision to put the onus on Trump to develop a financing mechanism — betrayed their political motives. Any Trump-proposed tax increase to fund a $2 trillion infrastructure deal would amount to “fingerprints on the murder weapon” that would be used to convict Republicans in the next election, Norquist said.
“They think they could trick the president into agreeing to a stimulus package that they would call infrastructure, and then the president would, in their view, be stupid enough to stand by them while he signed their bill,” he said. “The president would have simultaneously turned himself into George Herbert Walker Bush — he would have raised taxes on the middle class, he would have raised taxes on the American people, and he would have been crushed in the next election.”
Trump appeared to echo those views in an interview with Fox News host Steve Hilton, when he accused the Democrats of turning the infrastructure negotiations into “a little bit of a game.”
“What they want me to do is say, ‘Well, what we’ll do is raise taxes, and we’ll do this and this and this,’ and then they’ll have a news conference, ‘See, Trump wants to raise taxes,’ ” Trump said in the interview, which aired May 19.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s standoff with Democrats highlights the president’s difficulty navigating Washington’s political waters and inability to deliver on a key campaign promise with bipartisan appeal, said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.
“It’s easy to say you’re going to work to fix bridges and highway and dams, but that’s just talk,” he said. “In order to move the ball forward, you have to get out there and cheerlead for public works projects — and this president doesn’t know how to bring people together.”
Using the metaphor of a two-lane road, Trump told reporters Wednesday that the Democrats he had just walked out on had to choose whether to pursue investigations of his administration or legislative dealmaking. Doing both, he said, was not an option.
“You can go down the investigation track, and you can go down the investment track or the track of ‘Let’s get things done for the American people,’ ” he said during a hastily scheduled news conference in the Rose Garden.
For now, Democrats are pushing ahead with their oversight efforts, and prospects for an infrastructure deal seem all but dead this year. Pelosi accused Trump of a “temper tantrum” and publicly questioned his ability to “match the greatness of the challenge” before him.
“I can only think that he wasn’t up to the task of figuring out the difficult choices of how to cover the cost of the important infrastructure legislation that we had talked about three weeks before,” she told reporters Thursday.
Trump has shown himself more comfortable battling Democrats than advocating on behalf of any plans that could win bipartisan support, Brinkley said. Beyond outlining the broad themes of an infrastructure policy, the Trump administration has not yet mounted the kind of sustained policy effort necessary to turn the president’s campaign promise into legislation.
Democrats who thought Trump’s ambivalence toward fiscal conservatism and penchant for putting his name on buildings might make him more willing to back a major financial investment in new federal projects have been disappointed.
“We’re two-and-a-half years into this with no real movement on infrastructure, no real new dollars being brought to bear,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D). “I don’t know if it was just something that the president was saying in order to get elected, but there’s never been an indication that there was something there there.”
Congress has also not shown an ability to break through decades-old fights over how to fund transportation upgrades. The federal tax on gas and diesel fuel, a main source of revenue for infrastructure spending, has held steady since 1993.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) has become fond of telling a story when pressed on why major infrastructure legislation has been so elusive: Imagine a flock of hungry penguins at the South Pole, standing on a cliff staring at a pool full of fish below, hesitating for hours as they watch leopard seals, dangerous predators, circle the water, he says.
“They push one guy over, he doesn’t get eaten, and then they all jump,” he said, comparing the lawmakers to the penguins and Washington interest groups to the predators. “That’s where we’re at: No one wants to go first.”
“We have to talk about real revenues, which means some form of taxation in some way,” he added. “You can’t do it with fairy dust.”
While Trump’s administration has explored the idea of raising the gas tax, the president’s Republican allies have pushed back on the prospect of raising new revenue. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) has said lawmakers “ought to go and look and see how we can move existing dollars around and put them into higher areas of priority.”
Democrats have also been divided about where to get the money, with some arguing that raising the gas tax disproportionately impacts lower-income drivers.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has become a prominent voice on the center right advocating for a gas-tax increase — seeking to combat Norquist and tax-cut absolutists.
“People believe there are reasonable, bipartisan ways to pay for this, beginning with increasing the gas tax for the first time in 26 years,” said Neil Bradley, chief policy officer for the Chamber and a former senior GOP congressional aide. “That would allow a really robust infrastructure bill to get done in this year.”
The lack of progress on infrastructure could have an impact on the 2020 presidential race, which Trump plans to pursue using the “Promises Kept” motto. Earlier this month, Trump promised a new interstate highway bridge in Louisiana that would be operable the day after his reelection in November.
By failing to reach a bipartisan deal, Trump has undercut his ability to cast himself as a political outsider who could break the logjam in Washington, Brinkley said.
“The one thing that he had going for him during the election was when he’d say that ‘the airports and highway and bridges are broken and I’m going to fix it,’ ” Brinkley said. “The great irony is the president who promoted himself as a builder is unable to build anything.”
Rachael Bade and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.