With ‘Big I’ infrastructure adrift, lobbyists look to next year

With President Donald Trump’s big infrastructure vision resigned to claiming small wins among expected reauthorizations, lobbyists are beginning to look toward the next highway and transit bill to get what they wanted all along — a fix to the insolvent Highway Trust Fund.

With the likelihood of a wide-ranging infrastructure bill being enacted this year virtually nil, infrastructure advocates are increasingly looking ahead to the next Congress for action on their pet issues, the most high-profile of which is the cash-strapped Highway Trust Fund.

“I think it is accepted in the larger infrastructure atmosphere in the lobbying world that there isn’t going to be a massive infrastructure package this year, barring some recalculation by the Republican leadership between now and the election that they need to do something big to show another victory,” one industry lobbyist told POLITICO.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials kicked off its FAST Act reauthorization effort this month, more than two years before the highway and transit law expires on Sept. 30, 2020.

“I think the recognition there is that for the states, the core of what we do, what matters, and how the federal government can be the most helpful is still based on the multiyear surface bills,” said Joung Lee, AASHTO’s policy director.

While industry is eyeing any opportunity to get a HTF fix through Congress before the last highway and transit law expires in 2020, the best chance to do that was arguably last year’s tax code overhaul, which policymakers took a pass on. An FAA reauthorization — which contains a tax title — is expected to see movement this year, but it’s an unlikely vehicle.

And beyond the specific process, lawmakers have yet to coalesce around a way to address the Highway Trust Fund’s dwindling gas tax receipts.

Another industry lobbyist said groups’ pivot toward FAST Act reauthorization was a “natural evolution,” given the amount of time it took for the Trump administration to put forward its infrastructure plan — which had initially been promised within the first 100 days — and the fact that it doesn’t contemplate addressing the HTF.

“It was just enough time – just that year was, I think, a big mind-switch from, ‘Oh, we got years before the FAST Act expires, that’s like something in the future,'” to “‘2020 is around the corner, and we gotta start thinking about this,'” the lobbyist said.

But the industry has also been consistent about wanting HTF solvency addressed as part of — or alongside — a broader effort to legislate on infrastructure. Nearly all the big-name surface transportation advocacy groups mentioned the HTF in their statements reacting to the White House’s February rollout.

Lee said industry must do a better job of advocating for core programs, like the trust fund.

“I think we’re stuck in a bit of a purgatory of the extremes,” he said, where Congress seemingly recognizes the importance of not letting the fund run into a shortfall, while also being unable to reach a consensus on a long-term fix — or even that a solution is necessary.

Regardless, House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who’s still searching for a legacy bill after his big vision for splitting up the FAA failed, plans to introduce an infrastructure bill this summer in advance of his retirement. What exactly that bill could look like is still an open question.

While sources familiar with the talks say a bill could come before the August recess, some members have suggested the effort could encompass principles or policy ideas outside the committee’s jurisdiction.

Ranking Democrat Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) indicated this week that “funding alternatives,” which fall under the House Ways and Means Committee’s jurisdiction, are being discussed between the panel leaders. But any real revenue raisers, especially of the sort that would address the HTF’s solvency, seem like a long shot.

“I don’t think we need much policy,” he said. “I’m happy to lay out funding alternatives for our colleagues on Ways and Means.”

But given the condensed legislative calendar ahead of the November midterms — not to mention the uncertainty surrounding which party will control the chamber next Congress — the effort may well essentially serve as a marker for members returning in 2019.

“While we may not be getting the legislative victories we’re hoping for, we’re gaining public support and growing our coalitions, so we’ll be in a much better place to push this through the legislative process when the Congress decides to get serious” about pursuing infrastructure legislation, said Ed Mortimer, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of transportation and infrastructure.

When asked if the Senate Commerce Committee would producing a bill this year, Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) told POLITICO he thinks “it’s going to be unlikely that anything gets done this year.”

“I think that’s probably, you know, a big infrastructure bill’s probably a post-election and next-year-type issue,” he added.

Thune acknowledged that the political will to legislate on infrastructure outside the traditional reauthorization structure that’s existed for years for highways, airports and waterways is tenuous.

“I think it would be hard to do,” he said. “I don’t sense that there’s enough momentum around it, nor … has anybody come up with a way of a funding source for how you’re going to pay for all this stuff.”