Lawmakers Stress Highway Funding, but an Infrastructure Bill Remains Months Away
WASHINGTON — An infrastructure package will probably take a back seat to bills relating to the Federal Aviation Administration, farming and water resources, which will continue to dominate Congress’ attention in the coming months, according to Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.).
Graves, who serves as chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, delivered remarks at the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC) meeting May 16. His statement echoed that of White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who announced one week earlier that Congress will probably not pass infrastructure legislation this year. CAGTC’s meeting was one of many events recognizing Infrastructure Week, which is marked nationally by education and advocacy sessions that highlight the state of roads, bridges, rails, ports, airports and more.
Various lawmakers and experts agreed with Graves on the sluggish status of the infrastructure bill. Sanders’ announcement was “just kind of belaboring the obvious,” according to Jeff Davis, senior fellow for the Eno Center for Transportation. According to Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), members of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure have often discussed raising revenues to fund infrastructure, but they have yet to act on any piece of legislation.
“I don’t think there’s going be any major infrastructure bill at all in this Congress. Nothing moves forward,” Lowenthal said. “We are not going to end up with an infrastructure bill, unless I’m in total shock and all the points come together.”
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) said his main concern is compiling an infrastructure package that is less significant than the proposal President Donald Trump introduced Feb. 12. Denham, chairman of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, said the package would lose gusto if it were divided into separate, smaller pieces to address various issues, such as dedicated truck lanes and tolling.
“Our biggest issue is going be the infrastructure package itself. I think it’s critical to put everything in there and have the full debate now. That is the debate we need to have,” Denham said. “We need to be bold. We need to have a big package. Ultimately, I would expect an infrastructure package to be bipartisan as well.”
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) said an infrastructure package would likely need to have bipartisan support. (Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)
Sustaining the Highway Trust Fund, which assists states with maintenance and construction projects, remains a pressing concern for legislators and transportation officials. The fund is supported by the federal fuel tax, but improvements in fuel consumption and shifting driving habits contribute to the account’s steady decline, prompting several general fund transfers in recent years to maintain its solvency.
Lowenthal said dedicated grant programs, such as Infrastructure For Rebuilding America (INFRA) and Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD), will not go far unless there is a sustainable source of funding for highway projects.
“Without a sustainable funding stream, those are just good intentions. Those are not a real commitment to making the infrastructure in this nation work,” Lowenthal said. “These investments are desperately needed. If we think we’re going to rely on the general fund to do this, we’re dreaming.”
At the Infrastructure Week kickoff event May 14, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said that the administration is weighing about 16 funding mechanisms for infrastructure investment. Graves diluted these options into two basic schools of thought: raising the fuel tax, which has stagnated at 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel and 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline since 1993, or enlisting a vehicle miles traveled fee, which several states have piloted.
“Everything is on the table, including tolling, which I am not a fan of. [There are] more and more vehicles that don’t pay any tax. It’s going to continue to get worse all the time,” Graves said. “The trust fund is going to go broke here in two years.”