Democrats in Congress say they want to do it. President Donald Trump says he wants it, too.
But if a major transportation bill is going to happen this year, the ranking Republican on the House committee that would write it says Trump needs to get his own party on board, and that starts with State of the Union speech.
The speech is scheduled for Jan. 29, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has asked the president to delay it because of the partial government shutdown.
“If the president will make it a priority or mention it in his State of the Union, that’s going to jump-start it,” said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the new ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “He has to get behind it for this thing to become a reality.”
Trump has talked about infrastructure since the 2016 campaign, and a year ago called on Congress in his first State of the Union speech “to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for new infrastructure investment that our country so desperately needs.”
His administration followed up with a 2019 budget proposal that set aside $200 million that was intended to leverage another $1.3 trillion in investment from the private sector and state and local governments.
It also cut existing programs by 18 percent. An administration fact sheet said confusion about the “proper” role of the federal government produced an “unhealthy dynamic in which state and local governments delay projects in the hope of receiving federal funds.”
Trump’s plan to attract private and state investments was rejected by Republicans who controlled both chambers, and related spending bills — which still have not been finalized — largely ignored the proposed cuts.
Graves said Trump does not have to give details, but he should talk about the importance of passing a package this year.
“It’s obviously not going to be the biggest part of his speech, but if he goes through how important it is to him to see something done, it’s going to get people talking,” Graves said.
He worries, he said, that the partial government shutdown will overshadow any policy in the speech, even if it goes on Tuesday as planned. But Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said a bipartisan construction program is a good way to put the current partisan acrimony in the rear view mirror.
“Given how the last month and a half have gone, it’s a great opportunity for Congress to come together and show there are issues they can agree on,” Tymon said.
Dave Bauer, CEO of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, said that given how much Trump has spoken in the past about an infrastructure program, if he doesn’t mention it, it will be seen by some in Washington and beyond as a sign the issue has slipped off the agenda.
But he said the blame for inaction on the issue last year is not all Trump’s.
“Congress didn’t act,” he said. “Neither chamber produced an infrastructure package.”
After the November election, Trump indicated he was open to dealing with Democrats.
“The Democrats will come to us with a plan for infrastructure, a plan for health care, a plan for whatever they are looking at, and we’ll negotiate,” Trump said at the time.
Highway Trust Fund
A statement from Trump in the State of the Union could help Congress make tough decisions about how to shore up the Highway Trust Fund, which faces a growing shortfall between what is being spent and the revenue from the gas tax, last raised in 1993.
“It would be great to have him endorse a long-term funding solution for the Highway Trust Fund,” Tymon said. “It will give some of those conservative Republicans a little bit more leash to jump on the bandwagon.”
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., agreed with Graves about the importance of Trump’s support, especially in the GOP-controlled Senate.
“Absent that, I think it will be very difficult to get the investment we need,” DeFazio said. “I would hope the president would be more specific. Let’s say he goes up to $2 trillion this year. How are we going to pay for it?”
Last year, DeFazio and then-Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said they hoped Trump would call for an increase in the federal gas tax. Shuster retired in January.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said last March that Trump agreed in a closed-door meeting with lawmakers to support a gas tax increase.
But Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., told Politico in November he’s waiting for an announcement and then, “I would listen to the president and consider his point of view.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called earlier this month for raising the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon every year for five years, which chamber vice president Ed Mortimer said would raise $394 billion over 10 years.
“From the chamber’s perspective, we have to get out of just fixing current potholes and get to investing in a 21st Century infrastructure,” Mortimer said.
He added that the chamber has reached out to White House officials about Trump making a commitment in the State of the Union.
“We believe there’s an opportunity there to work on a solution that helps all of America,” Mortimer said.