WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s grand plan to spend $1 trillion over the next 10 years on highways and other infrastructure improvements faces a formidable roadblock in Congress and state legislatures.
There’s agreement the investment is badly needed to improve the nation’s sagging infrastructure but how to cover the huge expense is the point of tension.
Trump would use $200 billion in public funds to generate $800 billion in private money under a partnership program that would finance government bonds and also return a profit to private companies through interstate tolls and other user fees.
To do that, Congress would need to lift the restriction on interstate highway tolls, and state legislatures would have to authorize tolling within their borders.
That means tapping the pocketbooks of motorists, who already bristle over traditional federal and state gas taxes that pay for construction and maintenance of the nation’s highways.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, leader of the minority Democrats in the U.S. Senate, mocked the idea as “Trump tolls” at a press conference when the president campaigned for his plan in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday during what the administration called “infrastructure week.”
Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio took issue with Trump’s public-private partnership funding idea, saying the $200 billion public portion is “a far cry” from the $1 trillion federal investment the president promised voters in last year’s election campaign.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., worried that private companies would only go for projects in populated areas where they could be assured of a profit. Leahy said Trump’s public-private plan would be “devastating to rural areas.”
Democrats in Congress want the federal government to pick up the entire infrastructure improvement cost. Even some Republicans are wary of outsourcing the financing to private companies that would manage them and collect revenues from tolls and user fees for their return on investment. The fear is if revenues don’t match anticipated income, then the private company might pull out or close down a project.
Pat Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, has no objection to tolls as a method of financing infrastructure improvements. He said they can help states with budget deficits build and maintain public works.
Joung Lee, policy director for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, agreed, saying gas taxes haven’t kept up with highway improvement costs, which are expected to rise even further in the future as motorists drive more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Trump wants to create a “first-class” system of roads and bridges with public-private financing in order to increase federal spending on national security and put the nation on the path to a balanced budget by the next decade.
And while he hasn’t submitted the nitty-gritty details of his infrastructure financing plan, the White House budget office has said it will likely include tax breaks to private companies as well as outsourcing and allowing tolls on the interstate highway system.
The interstate highway system covers 46,730 miles, including 2,900 miles of state turnpikes that now impose tolls.
They were exempted from the no-tolls federal rule because they were existing tollways folded into the interstate system when it was created in the 1950s and 1960s.
Missouri was one of three states allowed to toll portions of its interstate highways under a pilot project approved by President Barack Obama. But in March, the state lawmakers approved legislation prohibiting the project from going forward
Republican Rep. Bryan Spencer, sponsor of the measure, said in an interview toll roads often are not well maintained, and drivers should not be required to finance improvements with tolls as well as gas taxes.
“It is kind of like double taxation,” said Spencer. “They’ve already paid for the road.”