WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao testified in support of President Trump’s infrastructure plan at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Thursday, despite serious criticism over the plan’s funding gaps.
“Infrastructure is the backbone of our world-class economy,” Chao said. “Yet today, these gains are threatened by aging infrastructure that is in need of repair.” The administration’s proposal “is designed to change how infrastructure is designed, built, financed and maintained in communities across the country,” Chao said.
Nearly 25 percent of the nation’s bridges and 20 percent of roads are structurally deficient or in poor condition. Furthermore, traffic congestion and delays cost drivers nearly $160 billion annually, Chao said in her testimony. The American Society of Civil Engineers graded American infrastructure at a D+ last year due to its poor quality, and estimates that it would take nearly $4 trillion to completely repair all American infrastructure.
“The reality is that American infrastructure is impacting each of our lives every single day,” ASCE president Kristina Swallow said. “Whether we’re sitting in congestion, whether we’re dealing with power outages, whether we’re under a boil-water-order because a pipe burst – all of those things impact our daily lives, our economic conditions and the communities that we live in, and it’s holding us back as a nation.”
Fixing America’s infrastructure has been a priority for Trump since the 2016 campaign. His plan, released in early February, allots half of the proposed funds for state and local projects. $50 billion in discretionary block grants would go exclusively toward rural communities, and $20 billion would be directed toward “projects of national significance.” The plan is expected to garner support from both sides of the aisle.
“I believe we can work in a bipartisan way on legislation that will make our infrastructure even better,” Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the committee. “That process began today by hearing more about the president’s plan.”
Opponents of the plan say it reverses historical precedent for how infrastructure projects are funded. The federal government has historically supplied 80 percent of the funding for interstate and federal highways, while states and localities supplied the other 20 percent. Trump’s proposal, however, would reverse this formula, requiring that states spend at least $4 for every $1 in federal money they receive.
“We can’t go from an 80 percent federal share to a 20 percent share and somehow expect states that are already facing budget constraints to pick up the slack,” Delaware Senator Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the committee, said. “It’s one of the many places where I think the administration’s math just doesn’t add up.”
But given the substantial cost of tackling the national infrastructure crisis, said Chao, no proposed funding amount could be enough. To show good faith, Trump has pledged his annual salary to the Transportation Department’s Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program, which provides money to state and local governments for highway and bridge projects.
“I think that’s going to be a tough sell, to be honest with you, especially for state and local governments that are already cash-strapped,” Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Aaron Renn said. “Only now are state budgets starting to really recover from the Great Recession, and so they’ll struggle in some cases to raise funds.”
Despite disagreements over whether the funding would be sufficient, all senators on the committee committed to working together to continue making infrastructure a priority going forward. They emphasized that while Trump’s proposal might not be perfect, fixing infrastructure is still important for the country.
“I understand that figuring out how we pay for things is always the hard part,” Carper said. “We have a real opportunity here to do something meaningful to address our nation’s sizable infrastructure needs, and we shouldn’t squander it.”