By John D. Schulz
· April 18, 2018
Wait ‘til next year. Maybe.
If promises were concrete and asphalt, this country would have the world class infrastructure that President Donald Trump keeps talking about. Unfortunately, it takes careful planning, political will and, most importantly, billions of dollars. All those characteristics are in short supply in the Trump administration.
Infrastructure is an early casualty of Washington’s fixation on the November mid-term elections. Retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and others are signaling that Trump’s $200 billion federal infrastructure plan is all but dead for this year.
Even Trump admits infrastructure is dead until 2019—or maybe forever. He has been talking about infrastructure improvements for at least three years since the early days of his candidacy, often calling U.S. roads and bridges akin to “a Third World country.”
“I don’t think you’re going to get Democrat support very much,” Trump said in Ohio recently, before adding: “And you’ll probably have to wait until after the election, which isn’t so long down the road. But we’re going to get this infrastructure going.”
Maybe yes, but maybe no. There is the not-so-small area of how to pay for these improvements without resorting to usual Washington bookkeeping and scorekeeping trickery. Truckers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce briefly floated a nickel-a-year increase in the fuel tax—18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline, 24.4 cents on diesel, unchanged since 1993—but that trial balloon crashed and burned by the no-tax pledge signed by most Republicans in Congress.
In more bad news, a planned infrastructure fund by the private equity firm Blackstone that was said to be creating up to $40 billion in private money has been slow to get off the ground. Saudi Arabia was supposed to be the fund’s largest backer, but they have backed off. Saudi money was supposed to be half of the $40 billion.
According to a New York Times report, Blackstone’s goal is now $15 billion, but even that figure is suspect because of lukewarm returns on infrastructure investments.
So that leaves truckers and other motorists absorbing billions of dollars in delays and repairs due to outdated infrastructure at highways, bridges and intermodal facilities around the country.
American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear has estimated the trucking industry currently loses nearly $50 billion annually to congestion. “That is unacceptable,” he said recently. “We must unclog our arteries and highways and make our infrastructure safer and more efficient by investing in our roads and bridges.”
Jim Burnley IV, who was Transportation Secretary under Ronald Reagan, said working on an infrastructure program in an election year is a neat political trick—and one just not possible in the current political climate.
“Sadly, that’s probably true,” Burnley, now a partner with the Venable Inc. law firm in Washington, told LM. “We’re just not in a political environment where big, bold infrastructure programs are available.”
With the Highway Trust Fund collapsing, Burnley said, the time is ripe for bold, new thinking. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), from 2021 to 2026 trust fund revenue is projected to total $243 billion. But outlays will amount to $364 billion, resulting in an imbalance of $121 billion. Each year during this period, the trust fund faces shortfalls of between $19 billion to $23 billion, the CBO says.
“Was it this hard in the 1990s when I was there? Yes,” Burnley said. “I hope Congress will have the political will to really come to grips with that fundamental resource. That doesn’t mean dramatic increases in the fuel tax. There are almost an infinite other ways to do it. But the political will has to be there—and right now it isn’t.”
Even if funding is coming from Washington, a majority of it appears heading to rural states that supported Trump. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao recently said DOT awarded more than 64% of this round of TIGER funding was for rural projects, as opposed to bottlenecks in and around urban areas.
The only thing the White House has been able to produce on infrastructure this year is a vow to expedite review and permitting for major U.S. infrastructure projects. It establishes a lead federal agency with a commitment to oversee any major projects, but few details how this will streamline complex deals. Under the current process, agencies may conduct their own environmental review and permitting processes sequentially resulting in unnecessary delay, redundant analysis, and revisiting of decisions. Now federal agencies conduct their processes at the same time.
But at least that was welcome news in some quarters of the business community looking for any action on infrastructure.
“(That) is a welcome change that will not only expedite review and approval of important infrastructure projects, but also help increase American competitiveness and economic growth,” said Mike Burke, Chairman and CEO of AECOM and Chair of the Business Roundtable Infrastructure Committee. “While much work remains to revitalize our nation’s aging infrastructure, this is a vital step forward in accelerating long-overdue infrastructure improvements throughout the country.”
Illinois Roads and Transportation Builders Association President and CEO Michael Sturino said while the plan helps cut through red tape, it probably won’t help Illinois because it favors rural (Republican-leaning) states at the expense of blue states.
“This is really going to go to more of the Wyomings, and the Oklahomas, and the Dakotas, those very sparsely populated states,” Sturino told the Illinois News Network.