The Infrastructure Impasse

President Trump's Meeting Walk-Out Is Only The Latest Setback In Fixing America's Roads and Bridges. Here's What Else Stands In The Way.

Thomas Mullen
May 28, 2019

Three minutes into a scheduled infrastructure meeting with Democratic Congressional leaders on Wednesday, President Trump abruptly left the meeting, angry about continuing investigations into his administration by Congress.

For those following the fate of a potential infrastructure bill, it's only the latest in a series of disappointing setbacks that have thus far stalled any kind of momentum on a bipartisan pledge to fix the nation's crumbling transportation routes.

But it's certainly not the only roadblock that remains in getting a deal done. In fact, even if the two sides were able to sit down and start hashing out an outline, there remain a number of serious obstacles to one day seeing the heavy influx of transportation-related work that keeps regulatory agencies and environmental consultants busy.

Here are some of the biggest roadblocks that have kept infrastructure legislation in a lasting lurch.

Issue #1: The Price Tag

It goes without saying that assessing and repairing the almost incomprehensible entirety of America's driven surfaces will come with an equally grandiose price tag. But the exact size remains one of the central sticking points in achieving progress on the issue. While the two sides seemed to settle on a $2 billion price tag, President Trump has since walked that back in a tweet that put his budget expectations between that and $1 trillion.

Still, anything in the trillion-dollar range represents considerable progress since last year when the Democrats walked away from Trump's original infrastructure proposal, which only included $200 billion in federal funding.

Issue #2: How To Pay For It All

Besides disagreeing about the overall budget for a potential infrastructure plan is the even stickier matter of how the federal government would pay for the endeavor--whatever it ends up costing. Many consider the most logical source of infrastructure funding to be revenue from the federal gas tax. This tax, which has stood at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, was put in place specifically to raise funds for the kind of road fixes that would be at the heart of an infrastructure bill. And while both Trump and the Democrats have expressed an openness to the idea of raising the gas tax for the first time a quarter-century, there are vast gaps in how much each side would do that. Back in 2018, Trump said he'd be open to a 25-cent hike in the gas tax--a plan that even won the support of the business-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, many Democrats and even a prominent House Republicanhave proposed doubling the tax. GOP Rep. Chris Collins said such an increase could be paired with raising the government fee airlines charge each passenger to cover the proposed infrastructure bill. Still, even some Democrats aren't so sure about such drastic increases, pointing out that the gas tax is a flat tax that would inordinately hurt the poor.

Still others say even the most aggressive gas tax increase won't be enough to cover the proposed $2 trillion infrastructure tab without raising taxes on corporations and the rich.

"If major tax increases are off the table, there is no way to pay for a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, it's that simple," said Frank Clemente, executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF). "Other options, such as raising the gas tax, might be part of the package, but by themselves won't come close to reaching the $2 trillion that's needed."

Issue #3: Other Priorities

As Trump came into office, fixing our nation's crumbling transportation system was one of the rare points of agreement between him and Congressional Democrats. But after some early fits and starts, the issue quickly took a backseat to a successful Republican effort to change the federal tax code and a lengthy fight over the fate of the Affordable Care Act.

And sometimes there are intervening issues related to Trump's presidency. Just after an April infrastructure meeting with House Democrats, for example, news dropped about Robert Mueller's letter to Attorney General William Barr complaining of his handling of Mueller's report about Russian interference in the 2016 election. In fact, that's just one of more than a half-dozen such times that the Washington Post recently cited in which the investigations surrounding Trump ended up sidelining possible progress on infrastructure.

"If the president does not lead on how we're going to fund this infrastructure investment, it will not happen," Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said.

Issue #4: The Booming Economy

One of the Democrats' biggest rallying cries in pushing the infrastructure bill has been its professed ability to create a lot of work for Americans.

"It's about jobs, jobs, jobs," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

However, America's booming economy is taking some of the desired urgency out of that argument, as employers are already having trouble filling existing jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 7.6 million unfilled jobs in America at the end of January--but only 6.5 million people looking for work.

Issue #5: The Blame Game

Even without the investigation-related rancor, both Congress and senior Trump officials remain doubtful that the two sides can deliver an actual infrastructure bill, according to Politico.  In fact, the two sides seem just as concerned with winning the issue's PR battle as they do in solving its funding stalemate.

"It's all about positioning themselves in a way that you can blame the other side for nothing happening," one person close to the White House told Politico.

In fact, a recent Fox New interview, President Trump did just that, using the opportunity to blame Democrats for the stalled talks instead of clarifying how a plan would be funded.

"[I] think we're being played by the Democrats a little bit, you know, I think what they want me to do is say, 'Well, what we'll do is raise taxes'... and then they'll have a news conference: 'See, Trump wants to raise taxes,'" Trump said. "So it's a little bit of a game, but I do believe they're doing that."