How House Democrats want to kick-start infrastructure spending

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WASHINGTON -- House Democrats will consider hiking passenger facility charges at airports and requiring the Army Corps of Engineers to spend the entire Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to jump-start infrastructure spending in 2019.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who will chair the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee next year, also intends to prod the Federal Transit Administration to accelerate its spending of previously appropriated spending.

DeFazio expressed optimism in a conference call with reporters about striking a deal with President Trump on major infrastructure legislation, noting that House Democrats will need White House support to get the Republican-controlled Senate on board.

“This is not going to get done without strong support from the president,” he said.

He said he’s open to various proposals for raising gasoline taxes, noting he previously authored a bonding proposal with indexation of gas and diesel taxes that would have raised $500 billion.

DeFazio’s one condition is that any deal with the Trump administration “has to be real,” unlike the failed proposal authored by former White House infrastructure strategist D.J. Gribbin that relied heavily on asset sales and privatization.

Congress recently approved a five-year reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration that disappointed airport industry officials because it did not change the cap on PFCs which are $4.50 per flight segment and a maximum of $18 for a round-trip flight with multiple legs.

DeFazio said he plans to meet with airport officials and airlines to discuss a “modest increase” of PFCs to address the need for construction of new gates and airport modernization. PFC revenue is often used to back bonds, and airport executives have been fighting for years to have the federal cap lifted.

“The most common cause of delays is airline operations, not air traffic control, not even weather,” he said, describing as “irrational” how planes often are delayed after their arrival by sitting on the tarmac with people waiting to disembark.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has twice voted unanimously to include DeFazio’s proposal to fully expend the almost $10 billion reserve in Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund as a part of water resources bills. Both times that provision, which also requires spending 100% of new revenue each year, was removed by the staff of Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., before the bills reached the House floor, DeFazio said.

Well-dredged harbors have become increasingly important as container ships have grown larger and larger in recent years. Some analysts fear that U.S. ports, some of which are significant issuers of bonds, risk becoming noncompetitive without proper maintenance of both harbor depth and landside infrastructure.

With Ryan no longer controlling the legislative agenda next year, DeFazio said he looks forward to passage of his provision.

“Without a penny of new taxes, we can begin to deal with the massive backlog of maintenance in our harbors,” he said. “Our 59 largest harbors are at somewhere around 40% of authorized capacity in depth on a daily basis. We need to deal with that. We have jetties that are crumbling and as they crumble, they crumble more quickly.”

The Democratic-controlled committee next year also will investigate the U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision to slow walk funding for transit projects that received bipartisan support from a Republican-controlled Congress earlier this year.

DeFazio said, “There’s some rumor that they don’t want Gateway to move up in the queue,” referring to the proposed new rail tunnel under the Hudson River connecting New York City with northern New Jersey and a new passenger rail bridge over the nearby Secaucus River.

The DOT has comes with new bureaucratic obstacles for approving projects even though the Trump administration prides itself on cutting red tape.

“We’ve got to get to the bottom of what’s really going on,” DeFazio said.

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Infrastructure Highway trust fund Airport revenue bonds DOT Washington DC