The 48-member bipartisan group’s “Rebuilding Infrastructure Report” called for modernizing user fees and incentivizing public-private partnerships.
Despite political gridlock between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats halting progress on an infrastructure package, the 48-member bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus recently released its policy solutions for funding infrastructure investments.
In its “Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure” report, the caucus called for modernizing user fees, incentivizing public-private partnerships, making smarter investments with limited federal dollars and increasing accountability to taxpayers.
“It’s always better for the country when we act together. The bipartisan infrastructure solutions contained in this report provide congressional leadership and the administration with the building blocks necessary to craft a comprehensive infrastructure plan both parties can agree to,” said Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., who co-chairs the caucus with Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J. “We all know our infrastructure is crumbling and we care about the people who feel the impact of our crumbling roads, bridges, ports and utilities every day. Congress must come together to act on this issue now, not later.”
For ports and inland waterways, the group recommended allowing the full expenditure of the Harbor Maintenance Tax revenues collected in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF). The tax is directly levied on importers and domestic shippers using coastal and inland ports as a 0.125% ad valorem tax on the value of imported cargo. Congress appropriates the funds to the Army Corps of Engineers for harbor maintenance dredging, but the “amount released is often less than the amount collected through the harbor maintenance fee,” the report states.
The HMTF has an existing balance in excess of $9 billion.
Last month, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee favorably reported to the full House the Full Utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Act, which would provide a discretionary cap adjustment that would allow for the full utilization of the HMTF and be spent on an annual basis. The full income and accumulated balance would add up to $34 billion over the next decade to maintain harbors, said Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who was one of five co-sponsors of the bill.
The report also recommended Congress amend the INFRA grant program and Freight Formula grant program to enable the selection of more multimodal projects. The FAST Act requires that about 90% of funding through the two programs be spent on highways, roads and bridges.
Rep. Alan Lowenthal in May introduced the National Multimodal and Sustainable Freight Infrastructure Act, which would establish the Freight Transportation Infrastructure Trust Fund paid through a national 1% waybill fee on the transportation cost of goods. The collected funds would be distributed through a formula program to each state based on the amount of existing infrastructure within the state and a competitive grant that would be open to all local, regional and state governments.
The bill would raise more than $10 billion a year dedicated to freight-related infrastructure projects with a focus on multimodal projects, according to a statement on Lowenthal’s website.
The caucus also recommended indexing the fuel tax and then an immediate or phased-in modernization of the federal gasoline user fee “that fully and sustainably funds the Highway Trust Fund and provides accountability to taxpayers by stopping future general fund transfers.”
The Highway Trust Fund is funded primarily through the federal gas tax, which has remained stagnant at 18.4 cents per gallon for gas and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel since 1993 without an index to inflation. Congress has been supplementing the Highway Trust Fund since 2008 — the first year spending exceeded revenue — with $140 billion through transfers from the U.S. Treasury general fund and transfers from other general funds.
“According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the failure to properly address this problem now will cost families $1,060 per year in lost disposable income and will suppress the growth of our GDP by $897 billion by the year 2020,” the report states.
Alternative user fees that take into account changes in technology and mobility use — such as annual registration fees on fully electric and hybrid electric vehicles, a user fee based on the value of freight assessed through waybill taxes and a pilot project to implement a mileage-based user fee on fully automated vehicles — also should be considered, the group said in the report.
P3s could give state and local governments additional tools and help on infrastructure projects of various sizes, the caucus said.
Congress should prioritize issuing regulations to implement provisions included in the MAP-21 and the FAST Act bills to streamline the environmental review process and accelerate project delivery. FAST 41 streamlining provisions, which “improve the timeliness, predictability, and transparency of the federal environmental review and authorization process for covered infrastructure projects,” should be adapted to other infrastructure legislation, according to the report.
Investing in our nation’s infrastructure shouldn’t be a partisan issue — it’s just common sense. It’s why the Problem Solvers Caucus has put aside partisanship to find a solution to fix our crumbling roads, bridges, and tunnels — and the administration and Congress must do the same,” Gottheimer said. “We can’t afford to play political games and keep kicking this problem down the road.”
After agreeing in April with congressional Democrats to aim for a $2 trillion infrastructure spend, President Trump abruptly ended a second meeting about infrastructure on May 22 after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., earlier in the day said he was “engaged in a cover-up.”
Pelosi, however, said she remained “optimistic” about an infrastructure package during an event last week hosted by the Commonwealth Club of California.
Earlier this week, the House Appropriations Committee approved by a 29-21 vote the fiscal year 2020 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies appropriations bill, which provides $137.1 billion in budgetary resources and includes $75.8 billion in discretionary funding.
The T-HUD bill provides $1.1 billion for the Maritime Administration, which includes $225 million for the Port Infrastructure Development Program and $15 million for the Marine Highway Program.
The legislation also appropriates $86.6 billion in total budgetary resources for the U.S. Department of Transportation. The bill includes $1 billion for the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) transportation grant program; $1.75 billion for discretionary Highway Infrastructure Programs; $500 million for discretionary airport improvement grants; and $350 million for Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program.
“First and foremost, we’re investing in infrastructure,” said T-HUD subcommittee chairman Rep. David Price, D-N.C., during Tuesday’s full committee markup. “Whatever is going on elsewhere in government, our bill is investing in infrastructure right here, right now — transportation and housing infrastructure, infrastructure broadly conceived.”