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White House Will Focus On Its Next Priority: Infrastructure


Now that the tax overhaul bill has been signed into law, the White House is turning to its next big priority, infrastructure. NPR's David Schaper talked to Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Anyone who got toy dump trucks, bulldozers, even cranes under their Christmas tree might be delighted to hear that the next priority is infrastructure. NPR's transportation correspondent, David Schaper, joins us now to talk about this. Hey, David.


MARTIN: All right. So President Trump has talked a lot over the course of the past year, even on the campaign trail, about infrastructure - spending a trillion dollars to fix and improve roads, bridges, tunnels, airports. Is that what this finally is?

SCHAPER: Not really. It's not a trillion dollars, anyway, not in direct federal spending. It'll be closer to about $200 billion over 10 years. Some of that will go to rural infrastructure projects. Some will be reserved for what's being called transformational projects. But the bulk of the 200 billion would go toward leveraging state and local money and private investment. Those state and local funds and private financing would, in theory, then make up the rest of that trillion dollars that the president talks about. But it's not exactly what a lot of people were looking for.

JIM TYMON: When the president first started talking about a trillion-dollar infrastructure package, I think a lot of us were hopeful that it was going to be a trillion dollars in cash.

SCHAPER: That's Jim Tymon with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He likes a part of the plan that would give state and local officials more control over construction projects. But using federal funding to leverage state and local funds and private investments worries him.

TYMON: That is going to be a tougher sell in some parts of the country that aren't used to partnering with the private sector or financing or going into debt to build a project.

SCHAPER: One concern is that this almost certainly would lead to more tolls. And people don't like tolls. But it's clear the administration wants to get away from the old way of doing things with big federal spending from Washington and to instead direct funding to projects where cities and states put their own skin in the game, too. Robert Puentes is with the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation.

ROBERT PUENTES: This actually makes sense because we have seen states and cities in metropolitan areas across the country raising their own taxes, going to the voters, having them approve measures at the ballot box. And these things are generally popular outside of Washington.

SCHAPER: At least 30 states have raised their own gas or sales taxes in recent years to fund transportation, and dozens of cities and counties have approved tax hikes to fund transit. But not everyone can do that. And Puentes says another problem is even that initial $200 billion in federal funding may be hard to come by.

PUENTES: We've got this huge tax bill. We have an omnibus appropriations package. We have emergency hurricane relief. We've got the children's health insurance - things that are super high priorities that may actually sweep up all of these pay-fors that we have for even that $200 billion.

MARTIN: So, David, we heard there that certain states have been raising their own state gas taxes to try to pay for some of this infrastructure. What about increasing the federal gas tax? I mean, that hasn't been raised in a long time, right?

SCHAPER: Yeah, it's been about a quarter of a century. But that's not going to be part of this package - not likely, anyway. A White House official told me that the $200 billion would likely be coming from budget cuts from other unspecified federal programs.

MARTIN: Do we know anything more? I mean, if they want budget cuts to pay for this, it'd have to be a big cut.

SCHAPER: And that's a real concern. I mean, it's not sitting well with congressional Democrats because we don't know where that money would be coming from. They fear it would be cutting essential programs to a lot of Democrats. And the administration is going to need some Democrats to support this infrastructure bill because it would need 60 votes in the Senate.

And even some conservative Republicans might push back on this notion that states would have to raise their own taxes. So while infrastructure spending initially has bipartisan appeal, the administration needs to do some of its own political bridge building first in order to get this plan through.

MARTIN: I see what you did there - bridge building. NPR's transportation correspondent, David Schaper. Thanks so much, David.

SCHAPER: Oh, it's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.