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May 9, 2019 5:30 PM, EDT

Lawmakers Mull Funding Options for $2 Trillion Infrastructure Deal

White House at night Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON — More than a week after President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats elevated a $2 trillion infrastructure package for lawmakers’ legislative agenda, stakeholders are speaking up about their funding preferences in advance of a planned meeting between the White House and transportation policymakers to discuss how to pay for the initiative.

Peter DeFazio

DeFazio

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, continues to champion a funding approach for surface transportation programs that would combine new user fees with other options. He is among the few voices openly endorsing raising the Clinton-era fuel taxes and relying on what he calls “real” federal funds. The federal 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax and 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax rates were set in 1993.

“We’ve got to come to an agreement on how we pay for the package,” DeFazio said May 8. “I would hope that we can come together and agree on a funding package that is significant.”

Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, DeFazio’s Republican partner on the House transportation committee, is consistent with his call to transition to a fee-based system for miles traveled. “We need to keep the focus on infrastructure,” Graves told Transport Topics. “How we fund it is the elephant in the room and I am hopeful legislators will bring thoughtful ideas to the table.”

Tom Barrasso

Barrasso

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), head of the Senate transportation panel, has pushed back on funding proposals anchored primarily on public-private partnerships, and has joined other top Republicans in supporting ongoing efforts to streamline the regulatory permitting process for big-ticket infrastructure projects.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently indicated her caucus will await Trump’s lead on the funding question.“The country needs this,” Pelosi told The Washington Post on May 8. “We’ll want to hear what [Trump] wants to do.”

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Meanwhile, stakeholders are urging Congress to advance an infrastructure package this year, and are sounding the alarm on the uncertainty created by dwindling funds from the Highway Trust Fund, which is used to pay for infrastructure improvements. Analysts estimate it will approach insolvency in about two years.

“The fuel tax is the one funding tool in the toolbox that pays for itself by users. It is the most effective, efficient and yes, conservative, way of generating the amount of money we need to do the job,” said American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear.

Citing federal inaction, more than two-thirds of the states have approved increasing their fuel taxes in recent years.

Reached by Transport Topics, neither the White House nor Barrasso or DeFazio had further details on when the planned meeting to discuss funding for the $2 trillion infrastructure plan would take place.