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Tolling Points

Trump, Pelosi, Schumer meet; time for hard choices on infrastructure funding

By: 
Bill Cramer

President Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, and 10 other congressional Democrats got an early start on Infrastructure Week on Tuesday, with a meeting at the White House that traced the broad lines of a comprehensive, $2-trillion national infrastructure package.

The conversation in the immediate aftermath had the sound of a bipartisan conversation in the making. "We told the president that we need his ideas on funding," Schumer told Politico. "If we don't have him onboard, it will be very hard to get the Senate to go along.”

The parties agreed to meet again in three weeks to look at how to pay for the job of rebuilding the country’s infrastructure.

The outcome received immediate praise from IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Patrick Jones. “We are encouraged that President Trump and congressional Democrats held what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described as a ‘productive’ and ‘constructive’ meeting on infrastructure, and that according to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, there was “goodwill” in the meeting,” he said.

“We are also hopeful that, in the next few weeks, Congress and the Administration will develop a serious plan that lays out what infrastructure investments we will make and how we will pay for it.”

The Reality Sets In

The news coverage and analysis in the hours after the White House meeting followed a familiar arc: the immediate reports of a $2-trillion investment package, followed by commentary on the cordial, serious tone of the discussion and references to the follow-up meeting to come.

But it wasn’t long before the initial breaking news gave way to a more nuanced read on the challenges ahead, and the pitfalls that could get in the way of the plan—based in large part on the twists and turns that have undercut past efforts to come up with a grand bargain on infrastructure.

By Tuesday evening, Politico was out with a list of seven reasons not to put too much store in the “hype” surrounding the meeting. The roadblocks ranged from the dynamics within and between the two parties, to the deadline imposed by a looming congressional recess in August, to the size of the plan and the budget numbers on the table.

And the story began with the question on everyone’s minds—where the money will come from?

But the after-action analysis missed one of the most important points—that any infrastructure plan will have a much better chance of succeeding if it takes advantage of the full toolbox of funding and financing options.

How to get the deal done is what the political leadership plans to discuss in three weeks. And they’ll have a much better chance of reaching a “productive,” “constructive” conclusion if they don’t go into their follow-up meeting with one hand tied behind their backs.

How to Do a Different Deal

Jones summed up the path ahead in April 2017, in an op-ed for Time:

"Having a grand infrastructure proposal without a means to pay for it doesn’t solve the problem. It merely names the problem and a happy end state, without any of the hard work needed to get to the end. We need to be honest with each other and make sacrifices now to ensure a better future. Sacrifice in this case means money, with Americans paying more than they pay today in exchange for better infrastructure.

It’s time to treat the American people like adults and explain the need for bigger investment in the form of taxes and user fees. Adults understand that there is no free lunch and there are no free roads. Let’s have an honest conversation that starts like this: We are going to build and maintain the finest infrastructure in the world and we, the American people, are going to pay for it."

Jones’ quote can be distilled into a series of simple truths.

We know what we need to do.

The solutions are within reach.

But we’ve been here before.

And there’s no guarantee that the right choices and decisions will be made…until someone makes them.

Two years ago, Jones called for an adult conversation about the need to build a better tomorrow by investing in our infrastructure today. By all accounts, the legislators had exactly that kind of conversation at the White House on Tuesday. For anyone who’s serious about addressing the country’s infrastructure funding crisis, this is a moment to show some optimism, congratulate the players, tune out those who say it can’t be done and commit to anything we can do to solve this nation’s infrastructure crisis and stop ignoring our woefully under investment in America’s future.

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