Road building has a long history of bridging the political chasm in Washington, D.C. How to pay for such infrastructure, however, can drive the wedge in.
This was on display Tuesday, when President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders agreed to work toward a $2 trillion infrastructure plan to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges, provide clean water and extend broadband coverage.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said there was “good will in the meeting.” Trump, according to a Democratic aide, offered to share his Tic Tacs with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and she accepted.
Trump, at one point, said he liked the number $2 trillion because it sounded better than $1.9 trillion, according to a Democrat who spoke about the meeting on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the private session. Democrats also put the onus on Trump to come up with a plan for how to pay for the package, and said they would meet again in three weeks, when the president will present his ideas.
In other words, details were lacking in this rare moment of bipartisanship in the nation’s polarized capital. Their absence was noticed locally.
Marlene Feist, spokeswoman for the city of Spokane, quickly cobbled together a list of the city’s most pressing and unfunded infrastructure projects, which amounted to $105 million necessary to fix five bridges in the city.
But she noted it was hard to know what to include in the list without more information.
“With very little detail to go on, it’s hard for us to determine what might even be appropriate,” she wrote in an email.
Beth Bousley, spokeswoman with the Washington State Department of Transportation, expressed similar consternation, and noted that WSDOT would work “with our community partners and congressional delegation to put forward projects or program requests,” but didn’t provide any specific projects.
Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter, with Spokane County, had a similarly bemused reaction and, finally, an unfruitful search for the county’s outstanding projects.
Sabrina Minshall, executive director with the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, also griped about the lack of detail.
“It’s kind of hard to answer that question without specifics,” she said about the region’s most urgent infrastructure projects. “But we have lots of needs.”
As Minshall said, Spokane’s roads, bridges, railroads, drinking water systems and broadband capacity are in far from perfect shape.
Of the 25 most-traveled, structurally-deficient bridges in 10 Eastern Washington counties, 13 are in Spokane County, according to information from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory.
In a draft of the city’s six-year comprehensive street plan, there are 20 projects that need $55.7 million in funding. In some cases, these projects are partly funded, or the city has identified funding sources for them. In other instances, not at all.
In a recent state infrastructure “report card” conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Washington got a “C.” More to the point of the deal hammered out at the White House, the state’s roads got a C-, its bridges got a C+ and its drinking water received a C-.
State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said any effort to increase broadband internet connectivity in the state had his support, noting that a “pretty robust broadband bill” passed during this year’s legislative session.
“We’re just scratching the surface,” he said of connecting everyone to the internet, which he described as a “health equity and education equity” issue, especially for rural residents. “If there were broadband dollars, we could be in a good spot.”
Minshall, whose runs the region’s transportation policymaking organization with a board of local elected representatives, said the most important thing a spending bill can do is fund maintenance of existing infrastructure.
“Take care of the infrastructure we already have. That’s hard to get excited about,” she said. “That’s the highest priority we have. We’ve got to do them and they’re not fun, but that’s how we’re good stewards of our financial trust.”
Among the highest regional priorities, Minshall said the county’s work to widen and straighten Bigelow Gulch ranked high, as did the multifaceted effort in the West Plains, which includes not just transportation work, but water infrastructure and the airport’s continued expansion as a passenger and freight hub.
Additionally are the Barker, Sullivan and Argonne corridor projects – all significant routes for local and freight traffic that interact with rail lines.
Within Spokane city limits, Minshall said the rehabilitative work on the Thor-Freya couplet still needs $4 million. A project to renovate Riverside Avenue downtown needs nearly $7 million.
That barely scratches the surface of the region’s needs, Minshall said. Though she didn’t say as much, she suggested that any real solution to Spokane’s – and the nation’s – issues needs a solid funding plan, and that was far from discussed at the meeting between Trump and the Democrats.
One funding solution, one that’s already used and is supported by the nation’s top business groups and labor unions, is an increase of the federal gasoline tax. It was last raised in 1993, and currently sits at 18.3 cents a gallon.
Schumer said the president didn’t rule out tax increases to pay for infrastructure. Asked whether Trump supports raising the gas tax, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said “this president is the guy who lowers taxes.”
A year ago, a different iteration of the infrastructure plan was described as a $1.5 trillion proposal. That plan, however, put forward $200 billion in federal funding – largely made of tax incentives – in order to entice states and private businesses to contribute the rest of the $1.3 trillion.
Such public-private partnerships were criticized, reportedly even by Trump at Tuesday’s meeting.
And that’s good, said Minshall.
“It’s hard to get too excited when they include public-private partnerships, especially in an area like ours because you need local investments and that’s hard to come up with here,” she said. “It’s hard enough to identify local matches (from government agencies). It’s challenging to respond to that.”
Regardless, committees in both chambers of Congress have started to lay the groundwork for an infrastructure bill through hearings, with Democratic lawmakers hoping to have legislation ready for consideration by June or July.
And without specifics, the nation’s most powerful politicians are fueled by the one area of agreement they were able to find Tuesday.
“We did come to one agreement: that the agreement would be big and bold,” Pelosi said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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