House Democrats Kick Off Push To Tackle Infrastructure 'Crisis'

They're hoping to vote on a bill to fix the nation's crumbling roads and bridges this year.
Hannes Kutza / EyeEm via Getty Images

WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump blasted investigations into his administration as “nonsense” on Tuesday, lamenting that Democratic lawmakers were not focusing on issues like the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and waterways.

“Instead of doing infrastructure, instead of doing health care … they want to play games,” Trump said at the White House. “It’s too bad because I’d rather see them do legislation. We negotiated out legislation with so many things that we agreed on, like infrastructure, but they want to focus on nonsense.”

It turns out that Democrats actually are ready to do infrastructure. On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee held its first hearing in eight years addressing America’s aging infrastructure. Democrats on the committee are hoping to kick off a national conversation about the critical issue, one that could lead to floor action on a legislative proposal by early summer.

“Our roads, our highways, they look like third-world countries,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a member of the committee, said during the hearing. He noted that several members of his family have driven trucks for a living.

Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), the committee chairman, called the state of the nation’s infrastructure a “crisis” that is only expected to worsen in the near future.

The costs of inaction are growing due to worsening congestion and automobile maintenance expenses. In 2016, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that over the next decade, individual American households would lose $3,400 a year in disposable income due to infrastructure deficiencies. Impaired infrastructure threatens safety as well. Last month, falling pieces of concrete the size of footballs shut down a major bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area. On Tuesday, falling concrete from an overpass in New Jersey shut down lanes on a busy highway.

Chunks of concrete fell from the upper deck to the lower deck on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge near Richmond, California, on Feb. 7, 2019.
Chunks of concrete fell from the upper deck to the lower deck on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge near Richmond, California, on Feb. 7, 2019.
California Highway Patrol Marin via AP

In Congress, there has long been bipartisan agreement on the need for an infrastructure overhaul, but much less agreement on how to pay for it. The American Society of Civil Engineers says that the U.S. needs to invest $4.59 trillion in infrastructure by 2025 ― a daunting sum that lawmakers are unlikely to provide in the current political climate given rising deficits and debt.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to unleash a grand national renewal not seen since the days of Dwight Eisenhower. The plan he unveiled last year, billed as a $1.5 trillion investment in infrastructure, offered just $200 billion in direct federal spending along with a hope of generating private investment to make up the difference. The proposal received a chilly reception in Congress, with members on both sides of the aisle raising concerns.

Wednesday’s hearing featured labor leaders like the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka and business leaders like the Chamber of Commerce’s Tom Donohue, as well as top members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The potential funding mechanisms brought up included proposals that have been under discussion for years.

Democrats at the hearing called for an increase in the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993. That proposal is supported by both the Chamber of Commerce, which recommends hiking the tax by 25 cents over five years, and Trump himself. The increase would generate an additional $375 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Chamber. But anti-tax conservatives oppose the move, arguing that it’s not needed and would hurt low-income families.

“The saying, ‘If you want to dance, you have to pay the fiddler,’ could never have been more true,” said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), urging his fellow Ways and Means members to embrace new sources of revenue to help finance infrastructure development.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) distributed a 1982 speech in which President Ronald Reagan, who was strongly opposed to tax increases, nonetheless called on Congress to double the federal gas tax. Blumenauer urged lawmakers to embrace another hike and to begin a “conversation in every congressional district over the next two months” about the need for new infrastructure spending.

If Congress does decide to raise the gax tax, it could provide billions in new revenue for infrastructure and help boost the Highway Trust Fund, which is currently projected to go broke in 2021. The fund finances most federal government spending on highways and mass transit and receives money primarily from transportation-related excise taxes.

Another potential source of revenue discussed during Wednesday’s hearing is a new levy based on how many miles drivers travel in their vehicles. It’s known as a vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, tax. The proposal is supported by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the chairman and ranking member of the House transportation committee, respectively.

“The gas tax is not a long-term solution,” Graves said at the hearing.

DeFazio, meanwhile, has indicated that he’d like to create a nationwide pilot program based on VMT. In 2015, his home state of Oregon became the first state to establish a voluntary per-mile vehicle tax as an alternative method to gas taxes. Colorado has also been experimenting with this revenue mechanism.

How such a fee should be calculated is unclear as yet. It could be based on odometer checks, GPS devices or other technology that would track how far a vehicle travels and charge drivers accordingly. But some stakeholders, like Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, have raised concerns about privacy, data security and evasion of such fees. There’s also the question of whether taxing the miles a person drives in their car is inherently unfair to rural residents, who must travel longer distances to reach their destinations.

Last year, Senate Democrats floated the idea of rolling back parts of the GOP’s tax cut law, targeting its lowering of corporate rates, as a way to help pay for new infrastructure spending. Blumenauer, a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, threw cold water on that proposal, however.

“Of all the ways that we could have to fund the rebuilding and renewing of America, I think that is fraught with peril,” Blumenauer told reporters on Tuesday ahead of the hearing, adding that linking infrastructure to major tax code changes could be “complex.”

Still, despite all the challenges involved in building roads, bridges and waterways, an infrastructure bill is likely one of the few proposals with a chance of advancing during the latter half of Trump’s first term given the divided government and the newly emboldened Democratic House majority probing every inch of his life and administration. Vice President Mike Pence signaled fresh interest last month when he promised a gathering of the nation’s governors in Washington, D.C., that a “historic” infrastructure bill would pass in Congress by next year.

“It can be a parade that they could run to get in front of,” Blumenauer said Tuesday when asked about Pence’s comments. “There’s enough credit to go around if we do it right.”

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