By T. Peter Ruane
The “death” of the Trump infrastructure package has been widely pronounced by the chattering class. The obituary writers have, however, missed the important reality that the underlying goals of the initiative are in fact moving forward.
A significant component of the administration’s infrastructure plan is to remove regulatory burdens and hurdles hindering the delivery of transportation and other infrastructure projects. This part of the president’s agenda is surging full steam ahead.
President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) last August calling for a two-year permitting deadline. The EO establishes a goal of identifying one federal agency to be the point of contact for each project’s regulatory approval instead of the dysfunctional agency hopping project sponsors currently suffer with the status quo.
The president also directed all federal agencies to establish task forces to identify regulations in need of modification or outright repeal.
These developments may not earn national headlines, but they are certainly meaningful to the transportation construction industry.
While the president has acknowledged his $1.5 trillion infrastructure investment plan—that relies primarily on non-federal resources and financing—is not likely to advance during 2018, Republicans and Democrats continue to demonstrate they support increasing infrastructure investment.
The FY 2018 appropriations process—finalized in March—delivered a total of $6.5 billion in federal transportation investment above already authorized amounts. The biggest winner of this boost was the federal highway program, which received $2.5 billion on top of the $900 million increase directed by the 2015 FAST Act. Airport infrastructure, public transportation and intermodal grants also received significant increases.
The House and Senate are currently working on FY 2019 transportation funding bills that continue this trend. The House is proposing an additional $4.25 billion in highway investment, and the Senate is pushing for $3.3 billion on top of the FAST Act’s $1 billion bump. Both proposals again would provide additional resources for transit, airport and other transportation improvements totaling almost $7 billion.
The boosts stem from a two-year budget agreement reached between bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate and President Trump in February that, among other things, calls for a minimum of $10 billion a year additionally in FY 2018 and 2019 for infrastructure investments.
Congress is also expected to approve a multi-year reauthorization of the federal aviation programs by the end of this year. Both the House and Senate proposals would authorize increased airport infrastructure investments.
The good news is that this is real growth in federal transportation investment, which has been largely absent since the 2009 stimulus law. The bad news is that without some additional action by Congress and the Trump administration, transportation funding levels will fall back to authorized levels in FY 2020.
Furthermore, 2020 is the last year the FAST Act’s general fund transfers will be supplementing existing Highway Trust Fund revenues. That means we are looking at one of three outcomes: highway and transit spending cuts of an estimated 40 percent; more budget gimmicks; or a real trust fund revenue fix.
The opportunity to secure additional transportation infrastructure investment this year, along with the pressing need to permanently resolve the Highway Trust Fund’s revenue deficit argues for continued pressure. Anyone who tells you nothing is going to happen in 2018 needs to know the real story and consequences of sitting out the coming months.
Pete Ruane is president of ARTBA.