WASHINGTON (CN) – Senators on Wednesday heard of the challenges they will have to overcome to meet President Donald Trump’s plan to improve the country’s infrastructure, one of the few White House goals that has a measure of bipartisan support in Congress.
A panel of infrastructure managers from five mostly rural states told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday that funding plans traditionally used in urban areas, such as private-public partnerships, do not work for rural communities because they do not generate the lucrative returns on investments for private companies common to city projects.
The panel also said the current string of continuing resolutions Congress has been using to fund the government brings with them uncertainty that makes it hard for states to plan their spending.
“If we have certainty around funding then we can make better plans and it costs states and all taxpayers less money when we have certainty,” Shailen Bhatt, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, told the committee.
The panel also lamented the lack of federal dollars going towards rural infrastructure projects, which place stress on state budgets and are often abandoned in the face of more pressing needs.
“We often have to choose between investing in infrastructure or funding our emergency services, courthouses and health departments, just to name a few,” Cindy Bobbitt, commissioner of Grant County, Okla., told the committee.
Trump’s promise during his presidential campaign to invest in infrastructure improvements has piqued the interest of Democrats in Congress who see it as a staggeringly rare point of agreement between their party and the president. With the Senate bogged down in bitterly contentious fights over nominees, a bipartisan infrastructure project could be a welcome relief.
“In an increasingly contentious political environment in the Senate and around this country, I would hope very much that on this issue there could be a coming together to address what almost everybody understands is a national crisis,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said at the hearing.
But the project could face opposition from fiscal conservatives unwilling to shell out money to cover a likely high price tag. To counter this, the panel of witnesses assured the committee that infrastructure spending is a safe and necessary investment.
“You either pay now or you pay later,” Anthony Pratt, administrator for shoreline and waterway management in Delaware, told the committee.
After the hearing, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, who chairs the committee, told reporters Republicans are working with the White House to iron out funding schemes and other specifics on the infrastructure bill, but did not give a timeline for when lawmakers will unveil a package.
With funding likely to be the primary sticking point in Congress, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., noted there are many ways to scrounge up the cash for the eventual project, from a gas tax to tolling and other user fees.
“I like to say that there’s no single bullet in funding our transportation needs, but there are a lot of silver BB’s,” Carper told reporters after the hearing.