Since our last examination of infrastructure legislation in Congress (Inside Washington, March/April 2019), the road to a successful resolution on Capitol Hill has been filled with deep potholes and posted towards lengthy detours. The best outcome for our industry instead may be found within the Congressional FY2020 appropriations process.
Infrastructure: Many Champions, Few Results
After the House and Senate’s early session hearings on the Highway Trust Fund, transportation infrastructure, and clean water needs, the Democratic House took the lead on the infrastructure issue.
In late April it appeared that progress was underway on a $2 trillion infrastructure package agreed to by both President Donald Trump and Democratic House and Senate leaders. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) said that both sides agreed that investments in infrastructure create jobs and enhance America’s advantage in economic competition with the rest of the world.
At the time, President Trump expressed infrastructure investments should go beyond bridges and roads and include water systems, broadband cable, and the electric grid. However, the sticking point remained in finding a viable funding source for all this investment. May 22 also saw the two sides abruptly cancel their infrastructure meeting over President Trump’s anger about the House investigations of the Robert Mueller report.
Our May 21-23 Washington Summit was a precursor to June’s House action on its appropriations bills, which are showing more promise than anything else this session. On Capitol Hill, NUCA members discussed with their lawmakers three areas that are important to our industry: water infrastructure investments, a change to the Highway Trust Fund to address its shortfall, and workforce development.
However, progress on this important issue is moving elsewhere in Congress. Before the August recess, the Senate released its surface transportation bill (America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA), S.2302). ATIA is a reauthorization of the FAST Act, formally kicking off the process for reauthorizing surface transportation legislation by September 2020, and should not be confused with the Trump Administration and Congress’s much-delayed infrastructure bill.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW), is seeking a five-year, formula-based bill paid for by highway users. The bill provides $287 billion in spending from the Highway Trust Fund over five years, with $259 billion of that total (over 90%) distributed to states by formula. This is a 27% increase over previous surface transportation bills, making it the largest highway bill in history.
The Senate ATIA legislation authorizes $6 billion over five years for a program to address the backlog of highway bridges in poor condition. 50 percent of the program will support bridge projects whose cost may exceed $100 million, addressing a lack of funding for large bridge projects sometimes encountered. The bill also codified a goal to complete environmental reviews within two years, a 90-day timeline for related project authorizations, a single environmental document and record of decision for all participating agencies, and an accountability system administered by USDOT.
But even if this Senate bill is voted on this fall by the full chamber (after sailing through the EPW Committee with an optimistic 21-0 vote on July 30), it may not receive further attention until next year. So far, it’s been a cooperative, bipartisan legislative process but disagreements over final funding could emerge before a final ATIA bill is approved. Three other Senate committees will have to handle the transit, rail, and funding requirements of the reauthorizing legislation before it hits the Senate floor. House transportation authorizers will be watching Senate progress on the legislation, with the House bill taking shape as late as early 2020. Since the 116th Congress doesn’t formally end until the first days of January 2021, legislators will take their time.
With the relevant industry bills slowly moving in committee or mired in partisan politics, Congress’s appropriations process may instead deliver infrastructure funding by the end of 2019. But this road is also paved with large speed bumps, some of which may cause a delay past the Sept. 30 FY2019 deadline triggering stop-gap funding measures that hold funds at current levels.
The appropriations process started off soon after NUCA’s May Washington Summit. The full House passed a month later its first FT2020 appropriations bill (HR 3055) June 25 by a 227 to 194 vote. The bill contains funding for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation and four other federal departments, including money for rural water and wastewater development and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.
At press time, the Senate version of this appropriations bill remains an enigma. Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is negotiating with the White House to find funding levels acceptable to the Trump Administration before voting on its own bill.
The fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, and if there was not a signed appropriations bill by then covering our issues — and the smart bets say there will not be one in time — Congress will once again have to handle a failed appropriations process under its rules.
We will find out by early next year — a critical election year — if Congress or the President are serious about their legislative ideas to build or improve our nation’s water, sewer, telecommunications, and electrical infrastructure.
Robert Baylor is Director of Communications for the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA). He is a former U.S. House of Representatives staffer, and has worked as a registered Congressional lobbyist.