New Leak Confirms Infrastructure Package Outline

The long-promised Trump infrastructure package may be unveiled later this month when the President delivers his State of the Union Address. A new leak confirms what we reported several weeks ago, including money that could be used to expand broadband access in rural areas.

The long-promised Trump infrastructure package may be unveiled later this month when the President delivers his State of the Union Address. A new leak confirms what we reported several weeks ago, including money that could be used to expand broadband access in rural areas.

Expectations are building that President Trump will unveil his long-promised infrastructure package during his State of the Union Address January 30.

A well-publicized leak of his proposal emerged this week, which conforms closely with what we reported – also based on leaked material – last month in this blog.

There will be four pots of money. The largest, totaling $100 billion, is intended to provide a federal incentive for transportation, water, hydroelectricity and brownfield reclamation projects. Money from this pot would cover 20 percent of project costs and non-federal funding would make up the rest.

A second pot sets aside $50 billion for rural projects, which also can include broadband investments. The last leak indicates $40 billion from this pot would be allocated to states after they produce a comprehensive rural investment plan.

A third pot would give the Department of Commerce the discretion to spend $20 billion on what are called transformative projects, including higher-risk and higher-reward projects.

Around $30 billion would be dedicated to federal capital financing and credit programs including TIFIA and WIFIA that are intended to spur public-private partnerships such as toll roads.

There are congressional proposals on infrastructure, so the final shape of a package that can pass remains to be seen. But it is encouraging to see the debate over an actual package may begin soon in Congress.

Congressional attention has been focused – and will continue to focus – on reaching an agreement on spending. The nation is operating under its fourth continuing resolution, with a February 8 deadline to negotiate a longer-term agreement under the shadow of other issues that range from increased military spending and immigration.

The three-day partial federal government shutdown that ended Monday may be a precursor of what’s to come. Senate Democrats want to use their limited leverage to filibuster to secure the future of 800,000 “Dreamers.” Trump and conservative Republicans in the House want to use the Dreamers as a bargaining chip to get up to $18 billion for a border wall and other changes in immigration policy.

The consensus view of political observers is that Senate Democrats folded fairly quickly because they weren’t geared up for a war of words in print and on social media. Republicans pounded them, saying they shut down the government to protect illegal immigrants.

Government shutdowns probably don’t shower any political party with praise, but Democrats may be better armed to defend their position if February 8 rolls around and there is no deal on immigration, border security or military spending.

DRIVE Act Enters Passing Lane

This is a follow up from our initial post, DRIVE Act: The Little Engine That Might 

Congressional action on transportation funding remains fluid as the Senate gears up to act in the shadow of a looming deadline July 31.

Congressional action on transportation funding remains fluid as the Senate gears up to act in the shadow of a looming deadline July 31.

The Senate last night secured enough votes to advance the 6-year transportation bill. The procedural vote, which passed 62-36, allows the Senate to debate the bill and consider amendments.
While funding for the overall STP program was increased and the allocation to local governments was increased to 55 percent from 50 percent, the bill includes a little sleight-of-hand feature that actually reduces STP funds to municipal governments. The bill requires that 15 percent of the STP suballocation for local governments go toward non-system bridges. In MAP-21, this 15 percent bridge funding came from the state’s allocation. In the DRIVE Act, it would come from the local government suballocation. Thus, funds to local governments overall will be reduced from $4.9 billion to $4.6 billion.
Local government advocates, including NACO, NLC, Conference of Mayors and T4A have caught on to this reduction and will be working together to increase the STP suballocation to local governments. An amendment is being drafted to reverse the cuts and increase STP for local governments.
If this STP amendment fails or is not allowed to be offered, it could lead local governments to oppose the bill. The Senate bill already faces some stiff challenges for other reasons and from different factions, including:

  • General opposition from Tea Party Republicans to transportation investment;
  • Presidential candidates in the Senate promising to hold up the bill to address their pet issues from abortion to the Iran nuclear deal; 
  • Concern over some of the pay-\fors, including revenue from reducing interest rates paid by the Federal Reserve to large banks, selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve that is used to prevent energy crises and directing fees from the Transportation Security Administration and customs processing. Some Senators just oppose the pay fors, while others wanted to use these pay fors for their pet bills (ie pending Energy Bill and sequestration relief).
  • Concern over some of the environmental streamlining.

DRIVE Act highlights include:

  •  A new Freight Mobility Program will distribute $1.5 billion in FY16 and grow from there. Freight corridors throughout the country will see needed influx in resources. In FY 16, Washington and Oregon would receive $34.2 million and $25.3 million to build important infrastructure projects.
  • A new Major Projects Program will distribute $300 million in FY16 and grow to $450 million in FY21. The new initiative will fund large projects of regional and national significance throughout the country.
  • The bill increases funding for the Transportation Alternatives Program from $800 million to $850 million and gives local governments 100% control over the use of funds. TAP provides funding for trails, bike paths, safe routes to school and other local priorities. 
  • The Surface Transportation Program allocation to local governments is increased from 50% to 55%. However, the overall pot has shrunk, so local governments will actually see a reduction. There are efforts underway to offer amendments to increase local governments share of STP funds.
  • The bill increases the funding that must be spent on projects to maintain and repair bridges off of the National Highway System, as these bridges often struggle to find a reliable funding stream. These city and county owned bridges were neglected under MAP-21. The bill requires that states allocate at least 110% of the funds they allocated to bridges in FY 2014.
  • The bill restores funding for the FTA Bus and Bus Facility grant program and increases transit formula dollars for transit agencies in urban and rural areas.

America Drifting Back to Cold War Paradigm

While trade, transportation and immigration legislation languishes in Congress, the nation seems to be drifting back into a Cold War mentality.

While trade, transportation and immigration legislation languishes in Congress, the nation seems to be drifting back into a Cold War mentality.

While trade and transportation bills languish in Congress, the United States seems to be slipping into a multi-front cold war as it returns to troops to Iraq, sends heavy arms to Baltic states bordering Russia and fends off cyberwar attributed to China.

The House spectacularly derailed fast-track trade authority legislation last week and House and Senate leaders have tried for months without success to find common ground on a long-term transportation funding measure. President Obama has pushed both. He says a trade pact with Asian countries will prevent China from ultimately writing the rules of commerce in that critical region. Obama says transportation investments are essential to support 21st century commerce and job creation.

However, foreign affairs keep drawing attention away from those priorities and toward a familiar destination. Islamic State gains in Syria and Iraq have sharpened sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Obama's attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran has shaken long-time alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is now engaged in its own military conflict with Houthi insurgents in neighboring Yemen.

Russian moves to seize Crimea and sponsor armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has made former Soviet states jittery, causing the United States to promise heavy military hardware. That prompted an escalation by the Russians who have put some of its remaining nuclear capability on alert.

Special operations forces and unmanned drones continue to carry out attacks to kill high-value targets, such as a top Al Qeada official in Yemen, as part of an effort to degrade terrorist organizations' abilities to attack the United States.

Meanwhile, Chinese computer hackers keep breaking into public and private databases to steal proprietary data and amass huge online personal information data banks.

By just about any definition, it seems like a world at war.

Recent polls suggest Americans may be willing to see troops dispatched to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS, which a majority views as a threat to the United States. GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker has said he would entertain sending ground forces back to Iraq.

The mood swing is very different from the atmosphere leading up to the 2008 election when Obama succeeded in drawing a sharp distinction with Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and Republican opponent John McCain in the general election over ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senate hawks such as McCain and GOP presidential candidate Lindsay Graham have pummeled Obama for failing to respond more decisively and engaging more deeply in removing Bashar al-Assad as Syria's ruler and arming Ukrainians to fend off Russians in the besieged eastern part of the country. There hasn't been a rush to support their views, but public opinion appears to be sliding in their direction.

The latest Gallup Poll shows Americans have very low confidence in Congress, which may influence their resignation at the institution's inability address major issues such as trade, transportation funding and immigration reform. The same poll showed Americans have the greatest confidence in the military.  

Spanking Congress for Doing Nothing

Ordinarily we would be writing now about what Congress was hustling to get done before leaving town. This year Congress left town before doing very much.

The Seattle Times ticked off what departing federal lawmakers left dangling:

  • A farm bill with provisions to aid farmers damaged by severe drought;
  • A long-term transportation bill;
  • Domestic violence legislation;
  • Student aid; and
  • Budget and tax measures to avoid plunging off the so-called fiscal cliff.

And that doesn't include anything that might qualify as job-creating legislation to speed economic recovery.

Instead, the 112th Congress has earned the epithet of a "do-nothing Congress." It could just as easily be the "blame the other guy" Congress.

So, the country is left to twiddle its thumbs — or wring its hands — for the next six weeks until the general election is over. Then congressional leaders say they will return to town and take up all the major issues it left undone.

A close presidential vote and continued split control of the U.S. House and Senate may not seem like much of a flash of light that illuminates how to unsnarl congressional gridlock. Perhaps, lawmakers have known all along what compromise would look like, but didn't want to tell anyone before they voted.

Transportation Bill Defies the Odds and Will Likely Pass in a Divided Congress

Congress is set to vote today on a much-debated transportation bill that avoids calamity, but doesn't keep pace with needed infrastructure investment.The MAP-21 transportation bill is scheduled for a vote in the House today and the Senate shortly thereafter.  The House should pass the measure easily and the Senate will likely do the same. The Obama Administration supports the bill and will likely sign it tonight.

As with any bill, not all sides are happy.  Transportation For America, a group focused on investing in transportation infrastructure, believes the bill is a missed opportunity: 

"We are encouraged that Congress will avoid a shutdown of the program. Unfortunately, this last-minute, closed-door deal does little more than that. The bill ultimately looks and feels like what it is: A stopgap that is the last gasp of a spent 20th century program. It doesn’t begin to address the needs of a changing America in the 21st century... What has been billed as a “compromise” on transportation instead represents a substantial capitulation in the face of provisions threatened by the House that had no relevance to the transportation debate.  In many respects, the bill falls far short of progress."

Political Brakes Halt Transportation Progress

The Chinese are investing in high speed rail, while Congress dithers on how to maintain American roads and bridges.Don't expect any action in Congress this year on a major transportation bill. A sharply divided Congress is unlikely to approve a gas tax increase or any alternative, which leaves the legislation bogged down just like a motorist on a congested freeway.

Few argue there about the need to upgrade America's infrastructure, which the American Society for Civil Engineers grades out at a "D." Highway safety experts blame deteriorating or unimproved roads and bridges for half of the nation's car crashes.

Where the rubber doesn't meet the political road is how to pay for improvements.

Raising the federal gas tax is unpopular at a time when motorists are already squawking about the high price of gas at the pump. The Senate Finance Committee is rolling around some alternatives such as a fee on vehicle miles travelled, expansion of public-private partnerships and creation of a national infrastructure bank.

The Best Jobs Bill is Stuck in Congress

A bill that would create more than a million jobs through infrastructure investment is stuck in Congress and will likely be delayed until at least 2011. The bill would jumpstart investment in the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure, relieve congestion, and provide the backbone for the nation’s global competition in the 21st Century.

In Oregon and Washington, it could provide up to $400 million for the new Columbia River Crossing project and millions for Portland’s streetcar project and crumbling Sellwood Bridge. As the nation’s unemployment rate continues to hover around 9.5 percent, investment in infrastructure seems to be the best way to create jobs. There is only one problem – nobody wants to pay for it.