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Trump's Roads and Bridges Plan Paved with Funding Questions, Rep. Lipinski Says

Chicago Tribune

A meeting this week between lawmakers and President Donald Trump’s special assistant for infrastructure policy raised questions about how to pay for road and bridge projects, according to U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat.

“I’m not sure how this is going to work,” Lipinski, who is the senior Illinois member on the House transportation committee, told the Tribune in an interview.

The Congressman said he attended a lunch meeting Thursday between special assistant for infrastructure policy D.J. Gribbin and seven members of the bipartisan House “Problem Solvers Caucus.”

Trump campaigned on a promise that there would be $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over the next 10 years, creating jobs and fixing the country’s roads, bridges and other structures. The pillar of the plan was public-private partnerships.

The White House’s budget proposal included a rebuilding plan that would put $200 billion into transportation projects over 10 years, with the goal of generating $800 billion in spending by state and local governments and the private sector. However, a detailed plan has been slow in coming and appears unlikely to happen this year.

Adding to the confusion, the president in September said he no longer favored public-private partnerships as a way to repair the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges, according to multiple reports.

Lipinski said Gribbin reiterated the administration’s plans to spend $200 billion over 10 years to leverage money from local governments and the private sector. But the administration did not explain how it would pay for the federal portion of the funding, which would be separate from existing programs and the struggling Highway Trust Fund, which is paid for through motor fuel taxes, Lipinski said.

While the administration has indicated that an increase of the fuel tax was on the table, Lipinski said it is not a priority of the White House or Republican leadership in Congress.

A representative for the U.S. Department of Transportation was not available for comment on Lipinski’s remarks.

Gribbin, the president’s infrastructure policy specialist, told lawmakers during the meeting that in order to qualify for grants from the new spending package, state and local governments would have to provide a source of “new money” that would be raised for a specific project, Lipinski said. It is not clear how new money would be defined.

The congressman said that idea is “very problematic” since it could mean that local governments cannot use existing sources of revenue. That would mean they would have to raise new funding — through a tax increase, for example — for the express purpose of trying to get federal infrastructure money to do a project.

Transportation expert Stephen Schlickman, the former head the Regional Transportation Authority, said that process could work to the disadvantage of states like Indiana that have raised gas taxes to pay for infrastructure projects, if that money is not considered “new money” under the administration’s proposal.

“I think you’d get some pretty big blowback from those states,” said Schlickman.

Lipinski said he is happy the administration is still talking about an infrastructure bill but “disappointed” that it has not moved more quickly.

“I’m still optimistic we will be doing an infrastructure bill early next year,” he said. “It may or may not look like what the administration is talking about.” He said he appreciated the administration doing outreach to lawmakers.