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Only time will tell on Trump’s infrastructure plan

The President’s desire for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure spending bill is drawing mixed reactions, with toll roads and deficits the biggest worries.

President Trump’s first State of the Union address covered a lot of ground last night: trade, energy, immigration, foreign policy, and, yes, the nation’s infrastructure needs.

“America is a nation of builders. We built the Empire State Building in just one year,” the President said in his remarks. “Isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take ten years just to get a permit approved for a simple road? [So] I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve.”

To get that, Trump wants Congress to fashion a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill based on details his administration plans to release in mid-February.

Some of those details have already leaked, however, and the focus on more tolling of existing highways is drawing the ire of several groups.

“If [President] Trump relies on the private sector and forcing states and localities to come up with their own funding, [his] infrastructure plan could result in a patchwork of tolls that span coast to coast,” noted Stephanie Kane, spokesperson for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, in a statement.

“Tolls are a wildly inefficient tax,” she added. “In addition to the diversion onto secondary roads which causes congestion and public safety issues, tolls will do unimaginable harm to businesses, as shipping and manufacturing prices skyrocket to account for those new costs.”

Then thee are concerns about how new infrastructure spending will impact the still-growing federal deficit, which ballooned by an extra $9 trillion alone to north of $20 trillion during the Obama administration.

“Missing from the President’s speech was any mention of our growing and unsustainable national debt. Following a year that can only be described as a debt-financed binge, the U.S. is now on track to return to trillion-dollar annual deficits next year,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

“High debt is a drag on the economy, and the more positive effects of the tax bill will eventually be overtaken by historic red ink,” she added. “If Congress doesn’t offset the budget deal under negotiation, we could see two-trillion-dollar annual deficits by 2027.”

Others, notably the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), want to squelch any plans aimed at expanding the nation’s existing roadway network.

“Building new highways has been proven ineffective at decreasing congestion, pollution and traffic, and instead adds strain to already-limited budgets while hurting public health and the environment,” noted Jeff Robinson, the PIRG’s senior director of transportation. “Priority funding should be reserved for transportation projects that reduce growth in vehicle-miles traveled, to account for the public health, environmental and climate benefits as well as the reduced need to increase road capacity in the future.”

He believes the country’s most important infrastructure needs are to rebuild the pipes and roads we already have, as opposed to building new infrastructure.  We need an eye toward the future, with a minimum of adverse environmental side effects.

“We need to invest in a transportation system that enhances the quality of life in our cities and towns, improves the quality of our air and water, ensures sustainability of our communities in an era of growing concern about climate change, and meets the needs of the modern economy,” Robinson noted.

“That means prioritizing repair of our existing roads and bridges over new highway construction, updating and expanding our transit systems, including funding the complete implementation of positive train control on all commuter rails by the end of 2018, and making roads safer and more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists,” he added. “That’s the path towards a 21st century transportation plan. That’s the path we should be taking. We need to focus on building the right stuff, not just more stuff.”

Yet there is also wide support for President Trump’s infrastructure initiative as well.

“We are pleased that President Trump continues to highlight the need for additional federal investment in infrastructure,” said Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

“For years, we have called for a long-term strategy to shore up the Highway Trust Fund in order to maintain federal investment in surface transportation,” he said. “We are looking forward to seeing the President’s infrastructure plan and working closely with the administration and Congress to advance a robust, long-term infrastructure bill that supports needed reforms such as streamlining project delivery in ways that also protect our natural resources.”

"President Trump understands that the best way to fully capitalize on recently enacted tax reforms is to make significant new investments in infrastructure,” noted Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America.

“While the tax cuts appear to be boosting the private sector, our economic growth is being constrained by traffic-clogged roads, aging bridges, decaying waterways and overburdened clean water systems,” he explained.

"President Trump made a strong and compelling case for Congress to work in a bipartisan manner to provide an additional $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure investments,” Sandherr said. “These investments will help improve aging public works and allow state and local officials to make the kind of investments needed to maintain our global economic competitiveness.”

“We agree that the state of the union is indeed strong, as our economy picks up steam thanks to sweeping regulatory relief and the first major tax reform in 31 years,” noted Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“These pro-growth achievements led by the president, leaders in Congress, and the business community have laid a solid foundation for continued growth,” he said. “Our priority heading into 2018 is to keep the momentum going by prioritizing policies that will ensure economic growth is strengthened, sustained, and shared all across the country. 

That includes focusing on modernizing America’s infrastructure, Donohue added. “A modern, efficient, and safe infrastructure system … [is] necessary to keep our economy growing. The U.S. business community is ready to work with the White House and Congress to advance these priorities this year.

Yet how such investments are paid for – especially where roadways and bridges are concerned – presents a major sticking point.

To that end, Donohue has called for a 25 cent increase in federal fuel taxes to occur over the next five years, among other initiatives, which echoes a similar proposal made by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) last December.

“America’s truckers commend President Trump for making infrastructure investment a priority of his presidency. While the state of our union is strong, the same cannot be said about the state of our roads and bridges,” noted Chris Spear, ATA’s president and CEO, in a statement.

“We join the president in calling on Congress to work with the Administration on an infrastructure package that raises real revenue to meet the enormity of this challenge,” he added. “Just as we did on tax reform, truckers are ready to help carry a solution forward.”
Yet Spear stressed that raising fuel taxes remains the best way to achieve those goals.
“Roads are not a partisan issue – they’re driven on by Republicans and Democrats alike. As both sides of Capitol Hill know, modernizing our infrastructure will require a substantial investment – actual, real revenue. America cannot be rebuilt with funding gimmicks and finance schemes,” he said.

“Trucking’s proposal, the Build America Fund, is efficient, conservative and viable, and will generate $340 billion of real money in the first ten years,” Spear noted. “We look forward to working with Congress and the Administration and educating the public on why a fuel user fee is the most cost-effective and conservative answer to fixing our deteriorating roads and bridges.”

Let the debate begin.

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