Infrastructure Week Is Over, But Pittsburgh Hopes For A Deal

May 6, 2019

In a whirlwind tour of regional infrastructure on Monday, the chair of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said Republicans and Democrats must find a way to rebuild the nation’s bridges, roads, mass transit and water and sewer systems.

“We built a lot of great infrastructure a very long time ago, a lot of it’s timed out in terms of its useful life,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR). “It’s time to reinvest for the 21st century."

DeFazio was joined by Pittsburgh-area Democratic Representatives Mike Doyle and Conor Lamb, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Mayor Bill Peduto. They gathered outside an 80-year-old Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority pumping station on Washington Boulevard, which retains much of its original machinery.

Outdated water and sewer infrastructure is just one of the region’s many expensive problems, said Fitzgerald, noting that catastrophic failure is forecast for some of the locks and dams in the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ inland waterways system. He added that the region’s transit systems have good bones, but need investment as well.

“The needs are really big,” he said. “It puts us at a competitive disadvantage … for all the things we need to continue to move forward.”

President Donald Trump’s Infrastructure Week, not to be confused with the industry conference of the same name, began in 2017 with hopes of spurring improvements to America’s crumbling infrastructure. Rebuilding critical national systems was one of his central campaign promises and one of the few issues that enjoys bipartisan support. However, each year has failed to bring about meaningful discussion. There’s hope 2019 may be different.

Monday’s tour came on the heels of a meeting between the President and Democratic leaders last week. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer emerged from that meeting promising a $2 trillion improvement package. The pronouncement received a cool welcome from Republican Congressional leaders, who say any proposal must be fully paid for.  

“What we all need to do is bring sheets of paper with our ideas on them, no attribution, throw them down on a table, and we don’t leave the room until we figure out how we’re going to pay for this,” said DeFazio.

A proposal to roll back federal tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals has been deemed a nonstarter. But DeFazio noted the federal government hasn’t raised the gas tax since 1993, citing the traditional means of funding infrastructure improvements.

Pennsylvanians already pay the highest gas tax in the nation.

DeFazio said he proposes to take out a bond to front the costs of any legislation, and then raise the gas tax by one and a half cents per gallon per year.

“With that we could borrow over $500 billion over the next decade to make the investments we need and have a repayment stream,” he said. “A penny for progress.”

Ultimately, the Ways and Means Committee and the President will get to decide how to fund it, he said.

Congressional leaders are slated to meet with the White House in two weeks.