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Trump Ups Infrastructure Spending Goal, but Offers No Details

White House may not have settled on a plan yet, Democrat says

Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, left, and New Jersey Rep. Tom McArthur walk through Statuary Hall on Tuesday as crews set up television interview positions in preparation for President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, left, and New Jersey Rep. Tom McArthur walk through Statuary Hall on Tuesday as crews set up television interview positions in preparation for President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump laid out a goal at his first State of the Union address Tuesday to spark $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending from public and private sources and couple the new spending with an overhaul of permitting procedures for projects.

Trump spoke in broad strokes throughout the evening, and his brief mention of infrastructure left many questions unanswered about the administration’s long-promised and still undelivered plan. A House Democrat speculated Tuesday after a canceled White House briefing that the administration hadn’t itself settled on the answers.

“I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve,” the president said. “Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need. Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment, to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit.”

The $1.5 trillion total price tag represents a 50 percent jump from Trump’s initial target of $1 trillion on the campaign trail but is in line with what he has said in recent weeks. Trump did not say what the federal share of an initiative would be or how it would be paid for. Administration officials have consistently said the federal government would pay $200 billion over 10 years, with the remainder coming from state, local and private sources.

Watch — Members of Congress Arrive With Guests: State of the Union 2018

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The White House has not said how a $200 billion federal investment would leverage more than six times that from other sources, nor has it said how non-federal dollars would be counted. Earlier in the speech, Trump pointed to an announcement that Exxon Mobil would spend $50 billion in the U.S. as a victory for the tax law he signed last month.

He also emphasized his aim to reduce the average permitting time for infrastructure projects from 10 years to two, calling the 10-year figure “a disgrace” because the Empire State Building was built in a single year.

Other than the $1.5 trillion total, not much was new in the speech’s short infrastructure section. DJ Gribbin, a special adviser to the president for infrastructure, said last week a detailed plan would be released a week or two after the speech.

‘Still some disarray’

But earlier Tuesday, House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Peter A. DeFazio said in an interview that the White House “abruptly canceled” a briefing of House chairmen and ranking members on the issue. The Oregon Democrat said he took the cancellation as an indication “there’s still some disarray in the White House on this issue as there has been for the last 13 months.”

DeFazio added he had conflicting reports on what the administration wanted to do — whether to favor a reduced federal role and little funding or a more robust plan with increased revenue.

Gribbin said last week the White House plan would not include an endorsement of a gas tax raise or any other plan to raise revenue, although the administration may not oppose one, if Congress takes up the issue.

DeFazio said he and Chairman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania “have a broad agreement in principle” on their own infrastructure bill. Depending on the road the administration takes, Congress may work with it to develop a plan or work independently, he said. He indicated the obstacles to enacting a large-scale infrastructure plan without presidential support, though, would be high.

“If the president doesn’t strongly advocate for a gas tax increase or other ways of substantially funding federal investment, I don’t think there’s much prospect of moving forward because the Republicans are going to want a signal, they’re going to want cover,” DeFazio said.

In calling for a gas tax increase, DeFazio is aligned with business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Trucking Associations. Both have endorsed plans to raise federal fuel taxes by 20 or more cents per gallon.

The ATA has also spoken against the idea of depending on public-private partnerships as a primary fix, calling instead for direct spending.

“Public-private partnerships might work for some modes like airports, but they are not a viable solution for the vast majority of roads and bridges,” the organization said on Twitter just before the speech began. “Modernizing our #infrastructure requires real revenue, not fake funding schemes.”

Public-private partnerships, or P3s, rely on a dependable revenue stream and are therefore often linked with tolling, which truckers oppose. According to a document leaked to online news sites Axios and Politico this month, the administration is considering lifting a restriction on tolling interstate highways.

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