Connecting state and local government leaders
"Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment," the president said.
WASHINGTON — President Trump in his first State of the Union address on Tuesday called for Congress to develop infrastructure legislation that would incorporate state and local government funding to yield at least $1.5 trillion of investment.
But the president did little to fill in blanks about where the federal government will find money to pay for substantial new spending on roads, bridges, sewers and other public works. And there are questions about how much more money states and localities can contribute.
"I am asking both parties to come together to give us safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure that our economy needs and our people deserve," the president said, as he addressed House and Senate lawmakers in the House chamber, at the U.S. Capitol.
"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," he added.
Trump staked out support early last year for a comparable rebuilding program in a speech to a joint session of congressional lawmakers.
Securing new federal infrastructure investment is a top priority for many state and local governments around the U.S.
National League of Cities president, Mark Stodola, who is mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, said in a statement after Tuesday's address that the group agrees with Trump that Congress should mount an effort to come up with a public works bill. But he added: "We are already leveraging every dollar available, and we need our federal partners to pay their share."
Administration officials have previously indicated the White House would like to see an infrastructure package with about $200 billion of direct federal spending over a decade, which could be combined with state, local and private dollars to reach $1 trillion of total investment, an amount lower than the $1.5 trillion marker Trump set on Tuesday.
Following the speech, lawmakers in both parties acknowledged that coming up with large sums of new funding for an infrastructure package, like the one Trump described, would pose a challenge.
"How are you going to pay for it?" said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber. "You tell me how we can pay for it and I'll tell you what we can do."
"Leveraging private dollars is a good start, but we got a lot of work to do," he added.
Peter DeFazio, of Oregon, who is the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, estimated that the odds of a major infrastructure bill passing this year are "plummeting."
"Where are they going to get the money?" he said.
"There has to be leadership from the White House if we are going to raise the user fee, gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1993, or put forward some other viable proposal," DeFazio added. "Trump initially promised a trillion, he's now up to a trillion-and-a-half. Yet they have no plan. So, at this point, we're nowhere."
DJ Gribbin, a special assistant to the president on infrastructure policy, told mayors here last week that the White House neither supports, nor opposes, an increase in the gas tax. He also said the infrastructure proposal the Trump administration plans to send to Congress would not outline new revenue options to pay for spending.
As DeFazio noted, Congress has not acted to raise the gas tax in about a quarter century and it is not indexed to automatically rise with inflation. The federal tax on gasoline is currently 18.4 cents per gallon. The tax on diesel is 24.4 cents per gallon.
"It is very important that we have a sustainable, reoccurring revenue stream attached to infrastructure," Rep. Lou Barletta, a Pennsylvania Republican who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said before Trump's speech on Tuesday. "That's the only way we're going to get a plan like this off the ground."
"You can't keep taking money from other pots," he added, "and claim that infrastructure is a priority."
Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, whose district encompasses Flint, a city where residents were exposed to lead-tainted drinking water, suggested the president was overestimating the potential for new state and local infrastructure spending.
"He assumes that the money that state and local governments are spending right now can somehow be doubled, tripled or quadrupled," Kildee said. "State and local governments are strapped."
"What they need is a federal government that does not think small," he added. "What we heard from President Trump is that he's thinking small. That was not a big plan. That was a big commitment of money that does not come from the federal government."
Gribbin told the mayors last Thursday the White House intended to send their infrastructure proposal to Congress one to two weeks after Trump gave his State of the Union address.
In conjunction with the speech, the White House released a short document Tuesday that broadly outlined some elements of the president's pending infrastructure plan. This mirrored a longer, leaked document that emerged last week.
Tuesday's release said the administration envisioned a package where "half of the new infrastructure funds would go towards incentivizing new state and local investments in infrastructure."
It also said one-quarter of the federal dollars for the proposed program would go to rural areas.
The president in his address reiterated calls for revamping and speeding up federal permitting and approval processes for infrastructure projects. "We built the Empire State Building in just one year," Trump said. "Isn't it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a minor permit approved for the building of a simple road?"
Sen. John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican who chairs the Environment and Public Works committee, said he hears from people willing to invest private money in infrastructure projects, but that a common concern is getting permits.
"They don't want to have to go through a 10-year process, as the president says, to get the permits to then be able to do a project that takes a year," he said. "That's wasted time and money and effort."
At least one conservation group, the Center for Biological Diversity, warned this week that, based on information in apparently leaked documents, the Trump administration's proposals for overhauling project permitting and approvals threaten to erode environmental safeguards and gut protections for endangered animals.
Barrasso noted that further discussions about the administration's infrastructure proposal are slated for later this week at a congressional GOP retreat. In the meantime, he characterized the possibility of passing an infrastructure bill this year that can lead to $1.5 trillion of investment as "aspirational," and offered support.
"I'm going to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the president," Barrasso said, "and work to achieve his goal."
This post has been updated.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.