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4/6/2018 10:59:00 AM
COMMENTARY: Road to better infrastructure twists and bends

Mark Bennett, Tribune-Star

Anyone who travels Interstate 70 from Indianapolis to Terre Haute expects bumps, rumbles and a jarring pothole or two along the way.

The I-70 shake-rattle-and-roll wasn’t unexpected for Sen. Joe Donnelly and a staffer on a Thursday morning trip to the Haute. He diplomatically called the drive “a challenge. It’s been a challenge for years.”

A $1.2 billion boost in annual state road funding, enacted last year by the Indiana General Assembly, will help rehabilitate aging roads and bridges. The Hoosier state needs safe, reliable, modern infrastructure if its “Crossroads of America” slogan is to be taken seriously.

The national network of highways, bridges, tunnels, waterways, ports, rail systems, levees and airports suffers from neglect and deterioration, too. Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a D-plus grade.

It will take a $1.4-trillion increase in national funding by 2025 to revive those structural necessities. Current appropriations by Congress and some states on infrastructure “do not come close” to the coast-to-coast needs, the ASCE said in its 2016 report.

A comprehensive federal infrastructure bill — which President Trump predicted would be passed in his first 100 days in office — may not happen until after November’s congressional election. Such a plan could’ve passed in early 2017, Donnelly said Thursday, but a tax reform plan bumped infrastructure down the priority list. The cut in corporate taxes to 21 percent from 35 decreases federal revenue by $2.2 trillion, complicating the process of funding a transformation of the facilities Americans rely upon for transportation and commerce, Donnelly contends.

Trump’s own infrastructure plan calls for a $1.5 trillion investment, primarily paid for by state and local governments and private investors. A fraction of that cost, $200 billion, would be funded by the federal government over a decade. Congress has been skeptical that idea will work. Trump told a crowd in Ohio last week that an infrastructure bill wouldn’t likely happen until after the election, NPR reported.

An explosion of construction on roads, bridges and waterways could stir the economy. Such a project is the one thing the polarized Congress could’ve agreed upon in a bipartisan way, if that had been pursued at the outset of Trump’s term in 2017.

“Everybody looked at each other and said, ‘Job one is to get this done right now,’” Donnelly said.

“I had very much hoped that the first bill this administration put together would be an infrastructure bill, because everyone wants to see better infrastructure,” he added during a visit to Grand Traverse Pie. “It would’ve been a completely bipartisan effort. It would’ve passed overwhelmingly. And it would’ve been a great boost for our country.”

The tax reform bill — which Donnelly voted against after it turned out to be the “complete opposite” of what he’d discussed with the president on an Air Force One flight last year — pushed aside possibilities for a infrastructure plan, he said.

“The money that was there isn’t there anymore,” Donnelly said. “That’s one of the effects of this tax-cut bill.”

A White House statement Wednesday by Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta maintain promotes Trump’s infrastructure plan as a “bold” proposal “that promises to create even more jobs.” Acosta also praised the plan’s spending on job-skills training, but didn’t mention a timeline for its possible passage.

Donnelly questioned the idea of basing infrastructure upgrades so heavily on private-public partnerships. Such an arrangement resulted in “a complete fiasco” in constructing Interstate 69 through portions of Indiana, with delays and traffic accidents. “There are better ways to do an infrastructure bill,” he said.

Last month, Trump said Democrats wouldn’t take up his proposal because they don’t want him to get “more wins” before the election. Donnelly has cast votes aligning with Trump’s stances more than half of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. The first-term Democratic senator insisted that he will back the president on issues “when he’s right,” adding, “I’d be happy to help the president anyway I can.”

Democrats countered with a plan for $1 trillion in direct federal spending on infrastructure, and the civil engineers group praised the fact that both parties presented ideas. The ASCE also reminded both parties of the urgent need to get started.

“Each day that Congress delays passing an infrastructure bill with strong federal investment including a long-term fix to the Highway Trust Fund, every American family loses $9 because of the inconveniences that come from our outdated infrastructure,” the engineers’ statement said.

The prime opportunity seemed to be in early 2017. Is that opportunity lost? “I hope not,” Donnelly said. “I hope we can sit down and figure out a way to do this. I am all in to try to do this.”

The impact would be substantial. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity for good-paying jobs — jobs that create more investment in the community, that create safety and opportunity, that make it so our families are in a safer place,” he said.

That shouldn’t be so hard to do for a president and the Congress.

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Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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