In my January post, I set the stage for a more detailed discussion of the infrastructure program expected from the Trump administration, promising more details in this post. In February, the White House issued a 55-page Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America. The level of detail in the document is impressive, but implementation will not be easy. While some may learn enough from one-page fact sheets or this summary for NASSTRAC’s On the Hill site, many logistics professionals will benefit from a review of the full legislative outline.
The main points are as reported before — $200 billion in additional federal funds over 10 years, with the hope that this will spur “at least $1.5 trillion” in state, local and private funding. However, we now know how the administration sees this funding being allocated.
Of the total, $100 billion would go to an incentives program aimed at producing far higher levels of state and private funding. To qualify for some of this federal “seed money,” states would need to show a commitment of their own funding, with a look back available so as not to penalize states, which have already funded infrastructure improvements.
A “Rural Infrastructure Program” would receive $50 billion in federal funds, in recognition of the needs and limitations of sparsely populated rural areas. “Transformational Projects”, described as bold and innovative projects, which offer dramatic improvements, but which may not attract private capital, would get $20 billion, and another $20 billion would go to existing infrastructure investment programs like TIFIA, WIFIA and RRIF grants.
Another $10 billion is intended to permit the purchase of real estate now used by the federal government under inefficient leases nearing expiration. Of course, Congress can and almost certainly will make some modifications in these amounts and designated functions.
Before any authorized money can be spent it must be appropriated, and that has been an obstacle for decades now. To his credit, President Trump has not ruled out raising federal fuel taxes, an idea supported by many interest groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and NASSTRAC. However, congressional Republicans have an aversion to raising any taxes and do not want to undermine their recent tax reductions, and Democrats fear the tax and spend label with mid-term elections imminent.
The American Trucking Association (ATA) supported fuel tax increases for years, but now offer a new approach intended to mitigate some of these concerns. Their Build America Fund calls for a fee of 20 cents per gallon, indexed for inflation, which would be collected at the wholesale level, leaving federal taxes collected at the gas pump unchanged. ATA notes that trucking accounts for 14 percent of U.S. vehicle miles traveled but truckers pay almost half of the costs of highway construction and maintenance and are willing to pay more.
With leadership from the White House, there is some hope of progress on the funding front, though action might be postponed until after the mid-term elections. Votes for meaningful infrastructure investment may be easier then when members will not have to face voters for years (or ever, if not re-elected). In any event, the House plans to take up these issues piecemeal, starting with airports and the FAA.
Whether the needed federal funding will be found remains a major question, and we cannot rule out the possibility that no major new federal investments will be made in the near term. If that is the case, current funding of $60 billion per year under the FAST Act of 2015 will continue until that Act expires in 2020 and is replaced by new legislation. Congress has a bad habit of enacting successors to highway bills a year or more after the old legislation expires, finding short-term stopgap funding in the meantime.
Assuming the $200 billion federal funding goal is met this year or next, other problems remain. About 87 percent of the projected $1.5 trillion in overall infrastructure investment is expected to come from states and private sources. How realistic is this hope? Many experts, including state governors of both parties, doubt that they can make investments on this scale, even with a 13 percent federal match. State budgets are tight, administrative resources are limited, and many states must comply with their own legal requirements, which need to be modernized.
In addition, states can be expected to focus on projects of most concern to local residents and businesses, rather than national needs. Some of the projects most sought by freight shippers and carriers involve roads connecting airports and seaports to interstate highways. Some of these connectors are notorious choke points for the national transportation system but may be low priorities for states. Freight does not vote, and may just be passing through.
Private capital can work well in many situations, but the viability of private infrastructure investments will depend on traffic density, lease terms, alternative routings and restrictions on fees and charges, including tolling. ATA has found that motorists are far more resistant to tolling than to fuel taxes, and freight carriers often bypass tolled routes that might attract private capital.
Despite these concerns, public-private partnerships are likely to produce increasing numbers of infrastructure projects in coming years, particularly in dense traffic corridors, if incentives like those urged by the administration can be implemented in ways responsive to investors’ interests.
The White House Legislative Outline also contains numerous specific proposals for expediting permitting for infrastructure projects. President Trump has called for permit approvals that now take 10 years to be completed in two years or less. These proposals should enjoy bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and could be adopted quickly, even if increased funding is delayed.