An Infrastructure Plan Holds Promise, but When Will It Happen?

A Trump priority seems to have fallen off the radar.

FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2016, file photo, a worker lifts materials as construction continues on the new roadway deck of the Bayonne Bridge in Bayonne, N.J. Even as they maneuver for a share of the $1 trillion in spending President-elect Donald Trump promised to rebuild America’s roads, bridges and airports, lobbyists for transportation and utility industries are beginning to wonder whether Trump really meant what he said. From the day he formally entered the presidential race to the moment he declared victory, Trump pledged to rebuild the nation’s aging and inadequate infrastructure.
AP Photo/Mel Evans
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Jan. 3, 2017, 8 p.m.

Head­ing in­to a po­ten­tially di­vis­ive—even tox­ic—term, one area where both parties in Con­gress and Pres­id­ent-elect Don­ald Trump seemed able to work to­geth­er was on an in­fra­struc­ture pack­age.

Trump had talked re­peatedly on the trail about re­build­ing roads, bridges, air­ports, and trans­it, even­tu­ally work­ing up to a $1 tril­lion pack­age. Demo­crats in­dic­ated after the elec­tion that they’d be eager to get a bill off the ground, and even some con­ser­vat­ives—usu­ally loath to move ma­jor spend­ing pack­ages—seemed per­suaded.

Now, that bi­par­tis­an prom­ise may be slip­ping down the cal­en­dar as the real­it­ies of gov­ern­ing come in­to fo­cus. At his year-end news con­fer­ence, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell said only that “it will be in­ter­est­ing” to see how the pack­age comes to­geth­er, warn­ing, “I hope we avoid a tril­lion-dol­lar stim­u­lus.”

In­com­ing White House Chief of Staff Re­ince Priebus and Trans­port­a­tion Sec­ret­ary Elaine Chao have down­played the pro­pos­al, with Chao not even men­tion­ing it in a ques­tion­naire to the Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee, in­stead fo­cus­ing on stream­lin­ing pro­ject ap­prov­al.

Mean­while, Demo­crats still see it as a way to build some bi­par­tis­an good­will and de­liv­er much-needed trans­port­a­tion dol­lars. Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Chuck Schu­mer told ABC News’ Power­house Polit­ics pod­cast in Decem­ber that a tril­lion-dol­lar pack­age “soun­ded good to me.”

A Schu­mer aide said that the minor­ity lead­er had spoken to Trump about the pro­pos­al, adding that the White House team “seems anxious to move for­ward, but there is a lot less en­thu­si­asm com­ing from Re­pub­lic­ans on the Hill.”

Part of that apathy simply re­flects the cal­en­dar: The early part of the year is ex­pec­ted to be jammed with mov­ing nom­in­a­tions, ap­prov­ing a spend­ing bill, and un­do­ing Obama-era reg­u­la­tions. Re­peal­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act is the GOP’s top pri­or­ity, and many Re­pub­lic­ans are also eager to push quickly on over­haul­ing the tax code.

Priebus de­clined to dis­cuss an in­fra­struc­ture pack­age—or “stim­u­lus”—on Hugh He­witt’s ra­dio show last month, say­ing the pri­or­it­ies for the first nine months were Obama­care, tax re­form, and re­con­cili­ation.

“We’re work­ing around the clock to make sure that big changes, bold changes hap­pen quickly,” he said. As for the “stim­u­lus,” Priebus said, “I would love to … get in­to the de­tails with you, but we’re not go­ing to do that today.”

Even Trump him­self told The New York Times in Novem­ber that in­fra­struc­ture was “an im­port­ant factor,” but “not the core” of his agenda. But in the same in­ter­view, he re­flec­ted an­oth­er reas­on why the plan is no slam dunk.

“That’s not a very Re­pub­lic­an thing—I didn’t even know that, frankly,” he said.

De­tails on how an in­fra­struc­ture plan might work have been scarce. An Oc­to­ber pa­per by Trump ad­visers de­scribed tax cred­its as a way to lever­age private in­vest­ments in in­fra­struc­ture, al­though that strategy would likely only work for money-mak­ing pro­jects, not already-built high­ways in need of re­pair. Demo­crats have already balked at the pro­pos­al.

In­com­ing White House ad­viser Steo­hen Ban­non, mean­while, hin­ted at a bolder pack­age in Novem­ber, telling The Hol­ly­wood Re­port­er that “we’re just go­ing to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.” That strategy would be sure to lose con­ser­vat­ives; Ry­an already said in Septem­ber that a massive stim­u­lus was “not in the Bet­ter Way agenda,” and Rep. Raul Lab­rador said after the elec­tion that the bill “has to be paid for” or Re­pub­lic­ans would vote against it.

A new bill would also come not long after Con­gress had to strive to fill de­pleted cof­fers to cov­er a five-year trans­port­a­tion reau­thor­iz­a­tion nor­mally fun­ded by the dwind­ling gas tax. State trans­port­a­tion agen­cies are push­ing for any new bill to con­tain con­sist­ent fund­ing that would sup­ple­ment that bill and flow through tra­di­tion­al for­mu­las that states use for road and trans­it re­pair.

Jim Ty­mon, the dir­ect­or of policy and man­age­ment at the Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation of State High­way and Trans­port­a­tion Of­fi­cials, said the fin­ance talk was en­cour­aging, but “not a per­fect fit for all the types of pro­jects out there,” es­pe­cially in states that for­bid debt fin­an­cing for pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture or pro­jects that might not re­turn any rev­en­ue.

“Even the most con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans out there ac­cept there is a fed­er­al re­spons­ib­il­ity to pay for this, but the stick­ing point is how to pay for it,” Ty­mon said. “Maybe in tax re­form, some sav­ings can be used as an off­set. We just need some money sent to states and trans­it agen­cies … for pro­jects they already have on the shelf.”

An aide for House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee Chair Bill Shuster said the chair­man was aware of that ten­sion and had dis­cussed “mak­ing smart in­vest­ments in in­fra­struc­ture” with both lead­er­ship and Trump’s team. But with the com­mit­tee’s roster not even set, the aide said it was too early to dis­cuss sub­stant­ive pro­pos­als.

That means the bill could be a long time com­ing, and could po­ten­tially slip as the fisc­al chal­lenges—and par­tis­an ran­cor—be­come more defined. But the talk of in­fra­struc­ture on the trail, from a Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate, has ex­cited the lob­by­ing com­munity, which will no doubt keep pres­sure on the Hill to get a bill done.

“Nobody in the in­fra­struc­ture com­munity is go­ing to hold off be­cause they don’t hear an ad­viser men­tion it in an in­ter­view,” said Robyn Bo­erst­ling, who works on in­fra­struc­ture for the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Man­u­fac­tur­ers. “Every­body has a list of pro­jects that will help the eco­nomy, sup­port busi­nesses in their dis­tricts, and in­dus­tries. This is a real op­por­tun­ity to break the ice and try to ac­com­plish what we haven’t been able to do, which is meet these un­met needs.”

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