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Opinion: The Infrastructure Plan Is Like Our Roads. Both Are Falling Apart

Lately it seems that infrastructure is always the ‘next’ item on the agenda

With Speaker Paul D. Ryan backing a fragmented approach, the door could be closing on an infrastructure overhaul, Nellenbach and Varn write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
With Speaker Paul D. Ryan backing a fragmented approach, the door could be closing on an infrastructure overhaul, Nellenbach and Varn write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congress is beginning to give up on the idea of a sweeping infrastructure bill, pointing to the looming midterm elections and the funding boosts that passed in the recent omnibus package. Even President Donald Trump seems to have accepted that one of his principal campaign proposals has stalled once again, admitting recently that infrastructure will “probably have to wait until after the election.”

Lately it seems that infrastructure is always the “next” item on the agenda — the one Congress will tackle as soon as it gets beyond the latest crisis. As our roads and water systems continue to deteriorate, it is now the infrastructure plan itself that needs immediate repair.

Ironically, the plan has been plagued by delays, like most construction projects. While many in Washington hoped to see Trump’s proposal within the first 100 days, it wasn’t released until this February. A year behind schedule, the president backed several promising ideas, including regulatory reform and programs for both rural infrastructure needs and transformative projects. Now lawmakers disagree over how to proceed.

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Though Speaker Paul Ryan called for the infrastructure plan to be delivered across “five or six” different bills, only three infrastructure-related vehicles are currently on deck for 2018: the farm bill; Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization; and the Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA. While each of these has infrastructure-related components, none is a coherent infrastructure plan.

“Infrastructure is always the ‘next” item on the agenda — the one Congress will tackle as soon as it gets beyond the latest crisis.”

This fragmentation reflects the disjointed nature of how our nation handles infrastructure today. With funding administered by a host of agencies overseen by multiple congressional committees, a piecemeal approach was always to be expected. But before we can transform our infrastructure, we must change this siloed process.

Going to pieces

Without a comprehensive strategy, huge swaths of infrastructure will be left out, including roads, bridges, rails, and municipal water and wastewater systems.

While the 2018 omnibus made a much-needed down payment of $21 billion, it wasn’t enough. There is still an inconceivably large gap between what we spend and what we should spend. And filling that trillion-dollar gap is just a start.

Solving infrastructure problems isn’t just about more money. We also need to make forward-looking investments to competitively position America’s economy for growth in the coming decades. Given the nation’s current deficit projections, enhancing our infrastructure financing tools will be increasingly important. Credit programs like TIFIA and WIFIA stretch limited public resources further and leverage the expertise of the private sector.

This discussion needs to be part of a comprehensive proposal instead of being forced into a series of fractured debates and spread across several pieces of legislation.

Those who wait

Admittedly, the midterms are already pulling legislators back to their home districts. Many pundits say the window for Congress to achieve anything significant this year has already closed. But 72 percent of Americans agree we need more infrastructure investment. Surely lawmakers will want to point to a list of their accomplishments when facing voters this fall, and what better one than fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure?

The alternative is, as the president said, putting off a real infrastructure debate until mid-2019 at the earliest, after the new Congress gets organized and new members have a chance to put their marks on a bill. Can we really wait another 18 months?

At the very least, if politics prevents a vote on an infrastructure bill before November, the coming months should be used to solidify the foundation of a bipartisan package.

As the Bipartisan Policy Center has outlined, any comprehensive approach must include dedicated funding for all types of infrastructure, expanded financing tools and responsible permitting reform.

Though the Trump proposal has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle, Congress is not starting from square one. The omnibus funding proves that bipartisan consensus can be found on infrastructure, and the Problem Solvers Caucus has already started to lay down a framework.

Infrastructure can’t simply wait until after the election, and it can’t trickle through Congress in “five or six” different bills.

Typically, even the most-delayed construction projects are completed, and an infrastructure package should be no different. The plan is in need of repair, but this summer Congress can build on existing bipartisan support and fill in the remaining potholes.

Michele Nellenbach is director of strategic initiatives at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former staff member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Jake Varn is a policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Website | Twitter | Facebook

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