Screengrab courtesy of C-SPAN

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s call for Congress to modernize the nation’s infrastructure was welcomed Tuesday night by members of Connecticut’s Democratic delegation eager to pitch in with Republicans to rebuild the nation’s highways, bridges, and rails system that they say are needed to strengthen the nation’s economic future.

“I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve,” Trump said during his first State of the Union address.

U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, a leader of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, said that although he is “no fan” of Trump he is anxious to work with him on modernizing roads and railways — an issue of particular concern in Fairfield County where I-95 and Route 15 are routinely gridlocked.

“I’m not under the assumption that he is going to propose something that right away is to my liking but simply prioritizing it (infrastructure) would be a big deal for Connecticut,” Himes said.

Trump’s plan also will focus on reducing regulations to speed up construction of highways and other infrastructure.

“We built the Empire State Building in just one year — isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a minor permit approved for a simple road?” Trump said in his address. He wants to streamline permitting to reduce the process to no more than two years.

“Together, we can reclaim our great building heritage. We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land. And we will do it with American heart, American hands, and American grit,” Trump said.

Connecticut is facing a looming crisis when it comes to financing highway projects — sending lawmakers scrambling for a new source of funding for needed projects. The Special Transportation Fund, which is used to borrow for road improvements, will be insolvent in two years. Democrats are looking at everything from raising the gas tax to installing electronic tolls.

The federal Highway Trust Fund isn’t in great shape either, as the 18 cent-a-gallon gasoline tax [which has not been raised since 1993] is insufficient to pay for transportation spending. The fund is projected to be running a $2 trillion deficit by 2025.

U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, earlier this month issued a report through the 48-member group offering policy recommendations on how to rebuild America’s infrastructure. She sees a small window of opportunity for Congress to tackle the issue this year.

“This (infrastructure) is the bipartisan work that can be done and we have about two months before the silly season of primaries starts and it gets difficult to get anything done,” she said. “Our state will benefit. The governor announced (last month) that he was putting on ice $4.3 billion in transportation projects. It’s a reflection of the chronic underinvestment by the federal government.”

Esty said President Trump has shown interest in the Problem Solvers’ work on infrastructure but cautions that his plan — yet to be proposed in detail — will not necessarily accomplish a long-term fix to the nation’s aging infrastructure.

The report she developed with New York Republican John Katko laid out a menu of options for raising revenue needed to address the nation’s infrastructure needs, with a projected price tag of more than $3 trillion. In his address, President Trump said he wants Congress to generate “at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need” with federal funds leveraging funds from state and local governments as well as from private investments.

U.S. Rep. John Larson took to Twitter during the address to say that rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure is not a partisan issue — and he pointed to a recent US Chamber poll that found 84 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats want the nation to modernize its infrastructure.

Larson said that a renewed program would “allow us to invest in transformative projects” that would create jobs, bolster commerce and improve the quality of life such as his proposal for a tunnel under the Connecticut River to replace the bridge that now connects I-91 in Hartford with I-84 in East Hartford.

ctnewsjunkie file photo
U.S. Rep. John Larson on the Connecticut River announcing his carbon tax idea (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

After the speech, Larson said the $1.5 trillion Trump called for is “an important investment,” but the devil is in the details.

“Where are you going to get the money?” he asked, noting that Republicans have not produced an infrastructure bill in the last six years but rather have been scraping by even as engineers and architects estimate that at least $2 trillion is needed to repair the nation’s aging highways, bridges and rails. Larson favors a tax on carbon emissions as a revenue source.

Larson also said that Trump may also be oversimplifying the ability of Congress to streamline the permitting process.

“It’s not to say some of the things can’t be done. There is some commonsense in streamlining a bureaucratic process, but not at the expense of making sure we aren’t forsaking years of reforms or the environment,” he said.

Michael Burke, chairman of the Business Roundtable, said he was encouraged Trump had made infrastructure renewal a priority in his State of the Union Address and said that Congress must “act with urgency to fix America’s bridges and other important arteries of American commerce.”

He also noted that Congress must ultimately shore up the federal trust funds to provide a dependable long-term source of revenues needed to pay for such projects.

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said Tuesday on CNN that the White House will likely provide more details about its infrastructure proposal in the coming week. He said it would include “some of the most innovative” financing ideas but would not include additional federal revenue sources.

“I don’t think we will be proposing any new taxes,” Mulvaney said.

Himes says the funding issue can’t be overlooked.

“To some extent people need to be adults around here. All the good stuff they want costs money and the money needs to come from somewhere,” he said. “All too often we get all the good stuff and it just gets added to the deficit or magically through gimmicks made to appear there is no cost.”

Himes said there are many mechanisms to consider, including one that U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro has advocated for years — to create an infrastructure bank that blends private and public capital for national infrastructure.

DeLauro said Tuesday that she fears Trump will fall short when it comes to the “robust public investment” needed to address the nation’s aging infrastructure. Any proposal that would privatize or push responsibility on the states, she said, is insufficient.

“In order to address our infrastructure problem in a comprehensive way, we need robust public investment, not privatization alone,” she said. “In addition to robust public investment, we should create a National Infrastructure Development Bank, to leverage public and private dollars for infrastructure projects of national or regional significance, as I have called for since 1994.”

Esty also sounded a cautionary note about the need for a federal infrastructure plan to consider future needs including a shift toward electric cars and other alternative fuel sources from gasoline as well as building structures that consider climate change.