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Capitol Watch: Could 2018 be the year for an infrastructure plan?

By Katie Cross, Associate, Blakey & Agnew

A year ago, the infrastructure world was full of anticipation and excitement after President Trump pledged in his inaugural address that "we will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation." A year later, we're still waiting for the building to begin, but we have a few more details both from the Administration and Congress on how it might happen. Could this be the year we see the long-promised infrastructure plan?

Buoyed by the President's optimistic comments on the release of an infrastructure plan, the House of Representative's Problem Solvers Caucus published a report of infrastructure recommendations in early January. Originally formed in January 2017, the Problem Solvers Caucus is comprised of 48 Members of Congress, including 24 Republicans and 24 Democrats. The Caucus is led by Representatives Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Reed (R-NY) and focuses on finding bipartisan solutions to prominent policy issues, like health care, tax reform, and now infrastructure. The Caucus' infrastructure working group, co-chaired by Representatives Katko (R-NY) and Esty (D-CT), collaborated with industry stakeholders to develop recommendations that could be used as the starting point for any infrastructure bill.

The final report, titled "Rebuilding America's Infrastructure," was published on January 10 and includes recommendations on a variety of infrastructure types, including: "highways, roads and bridges, transit and railways, ports and airports, water and sewer systems, energy systems and the power grid, and broadband and communications networks." It suggested policy changes, such as: streamlining the permitting process; allowing more projects on modes other than highways to apply for and receive funding under existing freight programs, like the INFRA grant program and the freight formula program; and dedicating 100 percent of the revenue raised for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to port and harbor dredging activities, its intended purpose. As for the ever-present funding question – the Report does not make one specific recommendation. Instead, it calls for Congress to provide "stable, long-term funding for infrastructure," and suggests a variety of ways that goal can be achieved, including ensuring sustainable funding for the Highway Trust Fund by: indexing the gas tax to inflation and increasing it; implementing a user fee based on the value of freight assessed through waybill taxes; or using pilot programs to test the effectiveness of transitioning to mileage-based user fee.

On January 22, an unverified document, described as an outline of the President's infrastructure plan,

began making its rounds. The six-page document focused on leveraging non-federal dollars for infrastructure investment and, like the Problem Solvers Caucus Report, addressed a variety of infrastructure types. While it did not include funding levels, or indicate where the funding would come from, the outline described how any available funds would be divvied up. It proposed new competitive grant programs, available to all types of infrastructure, including: the Infrastructure Incentive Initiative, which would receive 50 percent of available funds and place a heavy emphasis on non-federal funding; the Transformative Project Program, which would receive 10 percent of funds and invest in innovative infrastructure projects; and the Rural Infrastructure Program, which would receive 25 percent of funds divided between a competitive grant program and formula program and invest in rural communities to facilitate the movement of freight.

The White House would not confirm the legitimacy of the outline but during his inaugural State of the Union address on January 30, President Trump declared that he was "calling on Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment that our country so desperately needs." In conjunction with that speech, the White House released a fact sheet about their plan that seemingly mirrored the unverified outline. The fact sheet indicated that the White House plan will generate at least $1.5 trillion in investment; would incentivize non-federal investment; and would work to streamline the permitting process.

Despite these developments, we still have not seen actual legislative text from Congress or the more detailed, 70-page plan that the White House is rumored to be developing. Recent reports indicate that the release of the White House's document, which was originally scheduled for sometime around the State of the Union, will be pushed back again due to the three day Federal government shutdown in January and competing priorities, like immigration reform.

Blakey & Agnew, LLC is a public affairs and
communications consulting firm based in
Washington, DC.