By Mark Valentini, Director of Legislative Affairs
May 13-20, 2019 was “Infrastructure Week” in Washington, D.C. Infrastructure Week is a time for infrastructure stakeholders from all across the spectrum, including energy, transportation, civil engineering, and of course water, to promote the need for improved infrastructure in the United States. In the partisan atmosphere that has been typical in Washington for many years now, one of the few issues around which Members of Congress can rally is the need for improved infrastructure. Fixing our roads, bridges, and most importantly our water infrastructure (water is life, after all) will make Americans safer, allow commerce to move more efficiently, and put people to work doing skilled labor that is in high demand and pays well. President Trump agreed with Congressional Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to a $2 trillion price tag for such legislation. This is where the bipartisanship over infrastructure begins to unfold.
It’s important to keep in mind that the U.S. Treasury will not simply scratch off a check for $2 trillion upon passage of a bill. The spending would be spread over a 10- to 20-year period, meaning Congress would need to find roughly $50-$100 billion per year to pay for a package that size. It’s still a stretch, and three major proposals are focused specifically on highway use: increase the fuel tax; Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) Tax; and Public-Private Partnerships. Of these, the Public-Private Partnerships could set a precedent where the private sector steps in to build or repair other infrastructure (think water projects) and in return, users are paying even higher fees to reap the benefits. It might address the problem, but it comes at a cost.
In the end, infrastructure will come at a cost. This is widely understood in Washington, but the agreement ends when it comes to who will bear the brunt of that cost and at what amount. A similar standstill was encountered around this time in 2015 as Congress debated highway legislation, yet by year’s end Congress passed the FAST Act https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/fastact/ (and just in time for Presidential elections), and it’s possible the situation with infrastructure legislation will play out similarly.