An Infrastructure Bill Looms, but Details Are Divisive

Trump has said a transportation package would be a top priority, but the two parties are far apart on what projects to build and how to fund them.

Elaine Chao, Donald Trump's pick to become Transportation secretary, and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Nov. 29, 2016, 8 p.m.

In a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump before the election, Sen. James Inhofe brought him a simple message: Spend on infrastructure.

“If you’re not doing anything else, go read the Constitution. It says that’s what we’re supposed to be doing up here,” Inhofe recalled telling Trump.

It’s a message Trump appears to have heard; infrastructure has been repeatedly mentioned as an early priority for the new administration, and members on Capitol Hill are eager to take up a package that could allow for some bipartisan cooperation. Trump on Tuesday said he would nominate former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to head the Transportation Department, putting her in prime position to shepherd the administration’s infrastructure spending.

But a big infrastructure package is no longer a slam dunk on the Hill, with transportation money scarce and little desire on the Right for deficit spending, which means the legislative package will live or die on its details.

Details have been scarce, but what has been announced by the Trump team may not pass muster with either party on the Hill.

Stephen Bannon, the incoming White House strategist, told The Hollywood Reporter that he was pushing a trillion-dollar spending package because with “negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything.” He added: “We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.”

An October paper by two Trump advisers detailed a plan to use tax credits for private interests investing in infrastructure that would create a return to the taxpayer. Private companies, the plan contends, offer lower construction costs and could help finance up to a trillion dollars in spending.

Traditionally, Republicans would be the barriers to a wanton spending bill with such a big price tag. Concerns about spending have hampered recent highway bills—traditionally an easy bipartisan measure—resulting in last year’s five-year bill being funded with a patchwork of pay-fors.

But it’s Democrats who have been more critical of the Trump details. Rep. Peter DeFazio, the ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters it wouldn’t be “any kind of cure-all.” Former Obama adviser Ron Klain wrote that the plan was a “trap” and “a massive corporate welfare plan for contractors,” while Sen. Bernie Sanders called it a “scam.”

Because the plan would require recipients to generate money, it would likely be limited to projects like toll roads, fossil-fuel pipelines, or projects in heavily populated areas. Yonah Freemark, an urbanist who runs the Transport Politic website, said that would mean “a lot less money for things like rebuilding existing infrastructure and investing in alternative transportation” and public transit. Even repairs to the existing interstate highway system could be off the table because states cannot toll them.

“If we thought this legislation would solve our maintenance crisis, it’s not going to,” Freemark said. “We’d need some other source of funding to rebuild.”

It also raises a question looming over the nascent plan: What infrastructure is worth building? Conservatives bristled at the inclusion of clean-energy loans and government-building spending in the 2008 stimulus package, but have pushed for the inclusion of oil pipelines. Progressives, meanwhile, have argued that an infrastructure package that doesn’t emphasize transit or alternative infrastructure would mean more sprawl and more carbon emissions from driving (a particular concern for the Left after transportation became the nation’s biggest source of greenhouse-gas emissions this year).

The rise of autonomous and connected vehicles also reduces the need for new roads, because they will allow cars to pack in closer on existing highways.

Michael Sargent, a research associate at the Heritage Foundation, said more targeted infrastructure investments could be made at the state and local level and that the Trump Transportation Department would be better off giving more leeway for local agencies to enter into public-private partnerships.

“You don’t need to authorize a ton of money … or layer on federal programs to address what’s needed,” Sargent said. “I don’t think providing tax credits for toll roads to nowhere is really a viable option.”

Rep. Bill Shuster, who as chairman of the House Transportation Committee will move any infrastructure bill through the House, said he was encouraged by early conversations with the Trump team but emphasized that it would take a diverse approach to move the bill.

“It’s going to take private-sector capital and making sure the government gets involved. It’s all in play,” Shuster said. “I’m looking forward to having a Republican president … leading the way.”

The selection of Chao—who worked at Heritage—could help. The former Labor secretary and deputy Transportation secretary is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and got early plaudits from next year’s minority leader, Chuck Schumer. The New York Democrat praised Chao’s “long history of service” and said he hoped she shared Democrats’ “ambitious goal” of passing an infrastructure bill not dependent on tax breaks.

Inhofe, who has long supported government funding for infrastructure, said he saw the bipartisan interest in new transportation as a chance to move a more Republican version of President Obama’s stimulus.

“We had an opportunity eight years ago to do something. That’s where it should have happened,” he said. “We had a president who has put us in a position where we are way behind. … All that’s going to change.”

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