The end of the road

With no federal infrastructure bill in sight, state and local governments are grabbing at any funding possible to address our crumbling roads and bridges.

June 2019

Tyson Fisher

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When President Donald Trump was voted into office, part of the agenda for his first 100 days was to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over the span of a decade. Now more than two years into Trump’s presidency, the nation’s infrastructure is deteriorating as funding is drying up.

Many political pundits and columnists are quick to point fingers when attempting to explain why an infrastructure bill has not been introduced. This is futile considering that infrastructure is one of those rare topics that is historically, and still is, bipartisan.

Below is what’s at stake as Congress and the president continue to grapple with infrastructure funding.

Pelosi and Schumer meet with Trump

On April 30, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer met with Trump to talk exclusively about an infrastructure bill. Nine people in the Trump camp, including Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, were present. Additionally, 10 more Democratic Congress members also attended.

It was perhaps the most significant and meaningful meeting regarding infrastructure since Trump has been in office, signaling optimism that an infrastructure bill is soon to come.

“We are very excited about the conversation we had with the president to advance an agenda of that kind,” Pelosi said after the meeting. “We did come to one agreement, that the agreement would be big and bold.”

However, one problem continued to linger after the meeting: Where is the money coming from? Both the Democrats and the president agreed on the amount needed – $2 trillion.

“We told the president that we needed his ideas on funding, that the last bill that he proposed, which a) was smaller, but b) took as much money away – and the speaker emphasized this – took as much money away as it put in, wasn’t going to work. So, where does he propose that we can fund this? Because certainly in the Senate, if we don’t have him on board, it’ll be hard to get the Senate to go along,” Schumer told the media following the meeting.

Trump has said before that $1 trillion is needed to fix the nation’s infrastructure. Instead of the government supplying 100% of the funding, Trump’s plan at the time would only provide $200 billion, relying on state/local governments and private investments to pick up the rest. Now that the bill is up to $2 trillion, more questions have been raised.

Fiscal year 2020 budget

In the short term, funding is not looking much better. In March, Trump submitted his budget request for fiscal year 2020. The $4.7 trillion budget included a 22% reduction in the Department of Transportation discretionary budget.

Trump’s budget request includes $21.4 billion in discretionary funds for the U.S. DOT, nearly $6 billion less than the 2019 discretionary estimate. The budget also provides more than $62 billion in mandatory funds and obligation limitations.

Keeping with the infrastructure funding proposal mentioned above, Trump is asking Congress to approve $200 billion for infrastructure investments.

House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., is not satisfied with Trump’s budget request.

“For starters, the president is recycling his already-rejected proposal to somehow turn $200 billion of federal investment into $1 trillion for badly needed projects,” DeFazio said in a statement. “On top of that, the president is proposing cutting the Department of Transportation’s discretionary funding by 22%, cutting half of EPA’s Clean Water infrastructure financing and drastically reducing funding for the clean water program, all while slashing the Army Corps’ budget by nearly a third.”

This only brings us back to Point A, and indicates that if Trump suggests any similar funding mechanism in any future infrastructure bill, consider that bill dead on arrival.

In April, Chao addressed concerns regarding budget cuts during a House Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development subcommittee hearing about the DOT’s budget request.

“Some have noted that the president’s 2020 budget request is about 20% less than the 2019 enacted appropriations for discretionary programs,” Chao said. “While this is technically true for a relatively small subset of the budget, it is misleading and does not tell the whole story.”

Chao went on to explain that when comparing the president’s budget request for 2019 and 2020, the latter actually provides an overall 8.9% increase. Compared to the 2017 enacted level, prior to the budget cap deal increases, the overall increase for 2020 is almost 8%.

Committee on Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., noted that Congress has had to step up to the plate because of cuts from President Donald Trump’s administration.

“Frankly, I am unimpressed by your budget request,” Lowey said. “Twice, the administration has proposed cuts that would shortchange our national infrastructure, and twice Congress has responded by passing responsible funding levels. Please do better next time.”

Lowey’s statement is a nice segue to another element of an infrastructure bill: What do we do in the meantime?

States seek money wherever they can

While the federal government continues to linger on the subject, state governments are realizing they cannot

afford to wait any longer. Ironically, not having money is costing more money.

Land Line State Legislative Editor Keith Goble reported in April that 10 states have either raised fuel taxes or are pursuing a higher fuel tax. Alabama has raised its gas tax by 10 cents, Arkansas by 3 cents, and Ohio by 10.5 cents. For diesel taxes in those states, Arkansas’ will increase by 6 cents, Ohio’s by 19 cents, and Alabama’s diesel tax increase will be consistent with its gas tax increase at 10 cents. Seven more states are considering bills with similar fuel tax increases.

Other states are taking a different approach. More specifically, tolls.

Connecticut is in the middle of a partisan standoff to fund infrastructure projects. State Democrats want to introduce a tolling bill that will generate $800 million a year specifically for infrastructure. However, Republicans are calling it a “desperate attempt” to get the plan back on track after anti-toll protests have broken out.

Maryland wants to widen the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and B-W Parkway. This is not sitting well with some Democrat D.C. councilmembers, who introduced a resolution bill urging Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to reconsider.

What’s odd is that the tables have turned in the Maryland/D.C. situation compared with Connecticut. Essentially, Democrats are opposing a Republican-led toll. This again highlights that infrastructure is bipartisan.

Indiana and Rhode Island each implemented a truck-only toll last year. Rates at existing toll roads across the country are increasing.

Meanwhile, Virginia has pitched both fuel taxes and tolls for funding its Interstate 81 improvement plan. Gov. Ralph Northam originally had a toll plan. The latest bill has completely abandoned that idea and replaced it with a fuel tax increase. Essentially, Virginia is throwing every option at the wall until one of them sticks.

Recent reports highlight need for federal funding

Even though states are scraping the bottom of the barrel for loose change or digging deeper into motorists’ pockets, it does not change the fact that a bulk of funding needs to come from Uncle Sam.

Despite the fact that 30 states in the past six years have reformed or raised fuel taxes, the federal government hasn’t touched its fuel tax rate since 1993. That’s more than a quarter of a century.

Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, recognizes how this has led to states resorting to desperate measures.

“It’s frustrating for you, and it’s frustrating for our folks talking to lawmakers. We have had these conversations, over and over and over,” Spencer said during the spring OOIDA board meeting. “After 25 years of not doing anything, we need to get together or even more states will look to tolls.”

Tom Smith, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, echoed the need to increase the fuel tax on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Smith pointed out that people who use infrastructure have to pay for it, acknowledging the idea that this may require a “culture change.”

ASCE’s last report gave the nation’s infrastructure rating of a D-plus. Smith emphasized that any hope to fix this poor grade will have to come from the metaphorical tutoring of the federal government.

“It requires an investment and leadership by the federal government, and also investment by state and local government and the private sector,” Smith told NPR. “Those are all the tools in the tool box that all need to be utilized to solve this problem, but it starts with leadership from the federal government.”

And that’s not lost on the general public. Smith also pointed out that infrastructure is one of the top issues on voters’ minds. A Pew Research study asked voters whether or not they would increase, decrease or keep spending the same on a variety of issues. Education and veteran benefits led the poll with the highest percentage wanting an increase in funding, with 72% in favor for each topic. Right behind in third place was rebuilding highways and bridges, with 62% of Americans in favor of increasing spending to accomplish just that.

On the other hand, a different Pew Research study conducted in February asked voters about their policy priorities. Out of 18 policy issues, only 45% believe transportation should be a top priority for Trump and Congress this year. That is third from last, only behind climate change and global trade.

Although Americans firmly believe that infrastructure and transportation are important issues that needs more funding, when it comes down to it, they have other things to worry about. The public’s laissez-faire approach to infrastructure is one reason why this can has been kicked down the road for so long. It’s not a sexy enough topic for vote-seeking politicians to waste their time with.

Meanwhile, the situation is only getting worse.

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association’s sixth annual bridge report found more than 47,000 bridges were classified as structurally deficient. Although the number of structurally deficient bridges has been declining each year since at least 2014, the rate of improvements in 2018 slowed to a crawl.

Compared to the previous year, structurally deficient bridges declined by 0.1%. The decline was more rapid in 2015 (minus 0.4%) and 2016 (minus 0.4%) before slowing down in 2017 (minus 0.2%) and 2018 (minus 0.1%). This slowdown correlates with the draining of federal infrastructure funds.

Also worth noting: Look for talks about a vehicle-miles-traveled tax to replace the fuel tax. That won’t happen soon. However, not only did Smith suggest the idea, but it has been brought up during Congressional hearings numerous times in the past year alone. Don’t be surprised if a vehicle miles traveled tax nationwide pilot program makes its way into White House discussions and any subsequent bill. LL

Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.