Date:May 23, 2017
Despite bi-partisan agreement on the urgency to invest in the nation’s infrastructure to meet fast growing demands on our roads, railroads and waterways, there has yet to materialize a bi-partisan framework for funding and implementing such a plan.
Last week during Infrastructure Week, there was continued emphasis on the need to invest in a growing list of projects identified as necessary to maintain and modernize our country’s infrastructure system. An important voice in the Infrastructure Week discussion was Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. During a speech and testimony on the Hill, Chao outlined the need for additional infrastructure investments and provided insight on the current timing for the Administration’s plan.
Timing for Rollout of Administration Plan
In a speech to kick-off Infrastructure Week and during a Senate hearing, Chao stated that “principles” concerning the Trump Infrastructure Plan will be released toward the end of May. Expectations are low for a significant amount of detail in the forthcoming announcement. But such principles will hopefully provide eagerly awaited insight into the White House’s blueprint for a promised $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan and create renewed momentum around the possibility of passing a plan this Congress.
Likely Broad Focus on Infrastructure to be Covered
Chao stated that a multi-agency infrastructure assessment is underway and an infrastructure proposal may include funding for a wide range of infrastructure needs, including roads, bridges, clean water, transit, rail, waterways, schools, airports, energy and wireless and broadband expansion. Such a far-reaching approach is similar to the “Democratic Proposal” released earlier this year. Of note from infrastructure discussions last week is a new and increased emphasis on not only building infrastructure, but also providing better focus on maintaining existing infrastructure, with discussions around state-of-good repair requirements as part of future funding for projects. Chao also stressed the need for “common sense” policy changes to speed up project delivery and promote innovation and creativity to encourage emerging transportation technologies.
Funding a Plan
Funding has become the “trillion dollar question.” Chao iterated that no funding options are off the table. Her message focused on “leveraging” public funds to unlock and “incentivize” private investment into public infrastructure projects. Chao confirmed discussions around a proposal of $200 billion in direct federal funding to hopefully stimulate at least $800 billion in private financing. However, her comments included recognition that rural communities may not have the resources to stimulate spending around a public-private infrastructure model — a message voiced by numerous lawmakers during recent Congressional hearings. To that effect, a hearing last week also discussed opportunities and challenges for local governments to leverage federal funding through public-private partnerships. This included an overarching message that there are no shortcuts or one-size-fits-all approaches to rebuilding America’s infrastructure.
While continued discussions and hearings on this important subject with bi-partisan interest were encouraging, large and looming unknowns remain. They are:
- How to pay for the federal portion of any funding plan,
- How to gain bi-partisan support around a plan this Congress, and
- How to effectively address the diverse and competing infrastructure needs across the country in both urban and rural communities.
Chao described President Trump as “impatient” in wanting to address the country’s infrastructure needs. This impatience appears to be contagious, as Congressional members on both sides of the aisle are moving to introduce their own plans around infrastructure. With many viewpoints from lawmakers and stakeholders on how best to craft an effective infrastructure plan, it is going to require a responsible, dedicated, collaborative and bi-partisan approach to get a plan passed and signed into law. The recent passage of the “FAST” Act concerning surface transportation funding and the “WIIN” Act around funding water infrastructure projects may provide insights and lessons learned for achieving such a grand and important deal.
As the plan is still taking shape, it remains important to stay informed on developments and communicate concerns, needs and priorities to lawmakers and decision-makers.