Infrastructure is both the the bill that won’t pass and idea that won’t die.
Last year, President Donald Trump pushed Congress to pass a $1.5 trillion package to help repair aging transportation and utility infrastructure around the country. That bill failed to get off the ground. This year, the president was at it again, laying out a broad “agenda of the American people” that included a pledge to “rebuild and revitalize our nation’s infrastructure” in his 2019 State of the Union address.
So what are the odds that a Trump infrastructure proposal could go through this time around?
“Everybody agrees we should have better roads and bridges. We should have better transit systems. We need to reinvest in this infrastructure,” said Brigham McCown, chairman of the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure and a former adviser to the Trump administration’s Transportation Department. “But when it comes down to who’s going to pay for the bill, it’s like everyone has shoved their hands in their pockets and looks around like they didn’t hear the question.”
The trouble is that while infrastructure as a general concept has broad support, the two parties have different ideas about what reform looks like. Republicans are looking for ways to better partner with state and local governments and private businesses to better stretch limited taxpayer monies. Meanwhile, Democrats are talking about how infrastructure can help the U.S. transition to a low or no-carbon economy.
In this polarized environment, regulatory changes that allow more projects to get off the ground may be more successful than a massive, multi-billion-dollar program.
“If President Trump and Congress are to move forward on a significant infrastructure overhaul, we will all benefit from casting aside the maze of outdated and costly regulations that serve no purpose other than to delay progress and soak taxpayers,” says Gerard Scimeca, vice president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market consumer group.
Sciemca specifically targets the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which he says can add years to the time it takes to complete a project while increasing costs by billions of dollars. While this may seem like a minor policy change, previous administration proposals have shown that there is little room for compromise in terms of reducing oversight. The Federal Communications Commission has already moved to relax certain NEPA requirements for 5G telecommunications installations, but encountered stiff resistance.
NEPA adds several layers of environmental review that must be completed before shovels touch soil on most infrastructure projects. In many instances it is a duplicative environmental review which adds to studies already preformed by other state or federal groups.
“NEPA is a twisted, redundant bundle of red tape that has cost billions and held-up some critical projects for decades with unnecessary multiple environmental reviews by federal, state, and local agencies, not to mention costly, time consuming legal battles,” says Steve Milloy, member of President Trump’s EPA transition team.
Congress could opt to reform NEPA in an infrastructure bill. In fact, Congress could opt to do many things in such a piece of legislation. The key would be bringing it to the floor. So far, infrastructure has been used more as an appeal to what should be a bipartisan issue than a substantive legislative proposal. The administration’s detailed infrastructure plan died last year with barely a whimper. There is cautious optimism that Republicans and Democrats may find a way to work together on a proposal this year.
The trouble is, at this juncture, no one knows what such a proposal would look like. Are Democrats willing to commit billions to new highways while trying to transition to electric cars? Are Republicans able to compromise on clean energy or to raise the gas tax to pay for new bridges?
These are discussions for the weeks to come. In the meantime, infrastructure may remain a vague proposal meant solely to bring the two sides together.