When it comes to the possibility of a sweeping infrastructure package, it’s all about the money. Despite some gridlock between the White House and Congress, lawmakers are hoping for a bipartisan infrastructure package sometime this year. What that package would look like, and more importantly what the price tag would be, is still very much up for discussion.
At a recent Democratic retreat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., signaled hope for the prospects of Republicans and Democrats coming together to embrace some sort of sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package. She said Democrats are looking for up to $2 trillion in funding for the project.
“It has to be $1 trillion. I’d like it to be closer to $2 trillion,” Pelosi said.
That number is high, but lawmakers are exploring funding options, including the possibility of raising the federal gas tax, which sits at 18.4 cents per gallon and hasn’t been raised since 1993. There have been multiple reports that President Trump, behind closed doors, supports raising the federal gas tax by 25 cents, but he has yet to acknowledge those reports publicly.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao also said last month that “everything is on the table” when asked about the possibility of increasing the tax. A 25 cent increase is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Since 2013, more than two dozen states have raised gas taxes in response to federal inaction on the matter.
As talk of an increase in the gas tax grows, some are pushing back. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity will begin running ads in April in 20 states, urging members of the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee not to push for an increase in the tax.
Another idea floated for increasing funding is a “vehicle miles traveled” tax. With that policy, motorists would be taxed based on how far they travel rather than on the gas their cars consume. This is an appealing idea to some, as cars have become increasingly fuel-efficient, further reducing revenue from gas taxes.
Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, the top Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has signaled support for a vehicle miles traveled tax, while acknowledging full implementation would be a long way off. During testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee on March 6, Graves called the tax “the most promising long-term solution.”
“A VMT has the potential to be a true user-funded program that captures everyone and gets the Highway Trust Fund back to where it needs to be to maintain our network and improve it,” Graves told the committee. However, he also acknowledged some trepidation about the idea, including privacy concerns about the data that would be collected in order to determine a vehicle’s miles traveled.
Joseph Kane, an associate fellow at the Brookings Institution, confirmed to the Washington Examiner that support for an infrastructure package is ultimately going to come down to funding.
“Funding is still the most vexing question for policymakers in Washington and throughout the country,” Kane explained. “A $1 trillion investment has been referenced in several previous proposals, and is likely to keep coming up — as a talking point if nothing else. But for Congress, the White House, and many other agencies and groups to actually act on such a proposal will take a level of coordination not seen up to this point.
“The energy and visibility are there, but there are still serious questions on where this money will come from and how it will be deployed effectively. The next few months will hopefully lead to more details on that front,” Kane added.
Despite lingering questions over funding, Democrats are determined to try to work with the president to build support for a plan. Pelosi said during the March 11 retreat that she would be personally reaching out to Trump on the matter. Having voiced her preference for a price tag between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, she said that she and the president would “talk about what the number would be.”
“Even if it isn’t 100%, there is plenty of area of common ground to move forward,” Pelosi said. “I think the president wants to do that, and I think the president needs to do that.”
Trump made rebuilding U.S. infrastructure a major pillar of his 2016 campaign, and now that special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe has concluded, the White House is beginning to look ahead to other issues.