Trump offers 61 words on infrastructure, follow-up awaited

President Donald Trump declared Tuesday night that passage of an infrastructure package was a “necessity,” but didn’t provide specifics

President Donald Trump is seen in the House Chamber during his State of the Union address along with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and VP Mike Pence on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It was only 61 words in a State of the Union speech that ran close to 5,500 words, but President Donald Trump declared Tuesday night that passage of an infrastructure package was a “necessity.”

Lawmakers and industry groups that were hoping he would mention it agreed, though they said he will need to follow up if he’s serious.

“Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure,” Trump said. “I know that Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill. And I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future. This is not an option, this is a necessity.”

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio said both parties can unite because aging roads, bridges, transit, airports and harbors are affecting the whole country.

Watch: Optimistic, hypocritical and long: Members react to State of the Union in 3 words

“None of this can happen, however, if we continue to ignore the looming crisis facing the Highway Trust Fund,” DeFazio said in a statement, citing an American Society of Civil Engineers estimate of a $1 trillion shortfall over 10 years between surface transportation work needed and funding likely to be available.

“I will work to build bipartisan agreement around legislation, but I can’t do it alone,” DeFazio said. “This will require massive effort from the White House, stakeholders, and supporters in Congress to get something real across the finish line.”

The committee will hold its first hearing on the issue Thursday and will hear about the scope of the problem from the governor of Minnesota, the mayor of Los Angeles, a former secretary of transportation, the chief executive officer of Amtrak, and leaders of labor unions and transportation industry leaders.

Rep Sam Graves of Missouri, the panel’s ranking Republican, said in a statement that Congress and the administration have to find common ground.

“With the President’s leadership on infrastructure, and the widespread agreement on the need to act, we have a prime opportunity to achieve something that matters to people across the country and to our economy,” Graves said.

‘A call to action’

Dave Bauer, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said an organization poll found support for improving infrastructure was widespread and bipartisan — 96 percent said it was very or somewhat important — while one of Trump’s other priorities, building a wall or barrier on the southern border, was opposed by 52 percent overall and split people along partisan lines.

“When 90 percent of the country agrees on something, it’s a call to action,” Bauer said. “We commend President Trump for pressing bipartisan solutions. The last two federal surface transportation investment laws were achieved during eras of divided government. This time should be no different.”

The White House had said infrastructure would be one of five themes of the speech, but it was the one that got the least attention, and one House freshman who ran last year on the importance of funding for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, pointed that out.

“I cheered the president’s call to come together on issues like infrastructure. But I heard more specifics about building walls than bridges,” Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., said on Twitter.

A fact sheet released by the White House on Tuesday had a quote at the top of it from last year’s State of the Union, in which Trump spoke about building “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land.”

In that speech, Trump said about three times as much about infrastructure, calling for streamlined permitting and a $1.5 trillion program. The budget his administration later delivered, however, had just $200 billion over 10 years, some of it taken from other programs, which was to be used to leverage another $1.3 trillion from private capital and states. With both chambers controlled by his party, Trump’s plan got no action.

This year, business leaders including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are making a major push for action. Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber’s CEO, joined DeFazio on Tuesday for a news conference where he said they were going to “make it happen . . . and if people want to get in the way, that’s their own problem.”

Donohue said the chamber supports raising the federal gas tax 5 cents a year for 5 years to fund expanded projects, and he promised to campaign for any lawmaker who came under attack for supporting it.

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