Washington Wednesday: Transportation and infrastructure

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 8th day of May, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, Washington Wednesday.

Last week, Democratic leaders went to the White House. It was the first time House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had visited since December.

You may recall, that previous visit didn’t end well. It resulted in the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

But last week was different. This time Democrats emerged all smiles. Here’s Pelosi.

PELOSI: Good afternoon, everyone. We just had a very productive meeting with the president of the United States…

The two sides agreed to work toward a $2 trillion infrastructure package. It would include money for roads and bridges, but also things like broadband internet for rural Americans.

President Trump and Democrats agreed to meet again later this month to talk about how to pay for this spending. That’s a big obstacle, no doubt. But the civil discussion on a common objective showed progress.

Here’s Schumer addressing reporters:

SCHUMER: It’s clear that both the White House and all of us want to get something done on infrastructure in a big and bold way. And there was good will in this meeting, and that was different than some of the other meetings we’ve had, which was a very good thing.

Congressional Republicans were not present at last week’s meeting. So here to give us some perspective on what they’re thinking is Congressman Daniel Webster. He’s a Republican from Florida who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Congressman, good morning!

WEBSTER: Good morning! Good to be on.

REICHARD: Now, let’s get the obvious question out of the way first: Are you related to the Daniel Webster who was a senator and secretary of state under three presidents?

WEBSTER: Yes. My grandmother told me that was a distant relative. I was named after my great-grandfather who was named after him. So our family came here in 1643. Supposedly the connection was when a Webster married a Webster.

REICHARD: That’s awesome! Well, thanks for joining us today.

I’d like to start with this meeting President Trump had with Democrats last week. They agreed on a $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

How significant is that? And I guess by that I mean: What are the odds we’ll actually see the president signing such a bill into law?

WEBSTER: Well, $2 trillion is a lot of money and, of course, it’s over several years, a 10-year period. But, still, it’s a lot of money.

So I have hopes—matter of fact, I probably have more hopes for this particular bill regardless of the dollar amount than I do for any other piece of legislation passing. Everybody is pretty confident that we could get some infrastructure bill out. $2 trillion might be a little high.

REICHARD: What would such a massive deal include?

WEBSTER: A lot of projects. Well, I’m thinking more from a statewide basis. Maybe expansion, widening, strengthening, resurfacing our interstate system and that’s certainly a start. That’s a federal highway that the states maintain.

And then other more significant state highways would also be a part of it. There are bridges not only that need—we need new bridges, but also there’s some that are dilapidated and need to be replaced.

So we’ll see what happens, but I think in the end that amount of money will go a long way.

REICHARD: I know fiscal responsibility is important to you, so I want to ask you what a lot of people are thinking: How would Congress pay for a $2 trillion infrastructure package?

WEBSTER: Yeah, it’s kind of easy to talk about. It’s a little tougher to do. I think all of us have looked at it, including the committee itself and the chairman. We’re talking about ideas, ways to do it.

Probably a bigger revenue sharing with the states would be part of it. Also maybe even some private-public partnerships. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I think it’s going to have to include just about everything there is on the table right now.

REICHARD: Huge deals are hard to get, so do you think some smaller things could happen? What would that look like?

WEBSTER: Well, it could—I’m a toll road person. I believe that tolls are a way to incorporate all vehicles—from motorcycles to Teslas. So we get the gas powered, electric powered, and any other kind of power, including pedal power, maybe, if we use toll roads.

And, in the end, that to me is a starter. I believe that’s a place to gain new revenue. I think it’s a great Republican idea because you pay for what you get. If you want wider highways and faster lanes, then you get them if you pay the toll. If not, there are free roads, and you can take those.

But I think in the end, if we do—the gas tax is a dwindling amount because cars are more efficient, number one, and number two, it doesn’t include every vehicle. The electric cars are getting very popular. Most makers are coming out with some model of sorts, even up into busses and trucks. They have different kinds of fueling to propel them.

And so I think the key would be to find another source, and I think the source is toll roads.

REICHARD: Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that toll roads are unpopular in some states—like here in Missouri. Is that a concern?

WEBSTER: Yeah. We use toll roads in Florida. It’s a great thing that works for us. There are a lot of highways that wouldn’t have been built and the lanes would not have been built except for the fact that there were tolls to pay for them in the back-end. So you can bond that money and then you can go out and build the road and pay for it over time.

And the other is, like I said, it captures all types of vehicles. So I think it’s a great thing. Yeah, people would have to get used to it, but in the end if you tell them, look, there are either going to be tolls on these lanes or they won’t be built ever.

And I think that’s the way we’ve sold it here in Florida is, look, these roads don’t exist with an either or. You can choose one way or another to pay for them. There’s only one way and that’s tolls. If not, no roads. And I think that’s helped us here.

REICHARD: Does the transportation committee already have some things in process?

WEBSTER: Not beyond hearings. We’ve had hearings, we’ve had lots of ideas, mayors, governors, secretaries of transportation and states. Others come and testify. I think that will continue to determine what the states might be willing to give. What the governors of those states would support and so forth. I think it’s going to have to be a ground-up process.

REICHARD: Congressman Daniel Webster serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Congressman, thank you for your insights today.

WEBSTER: Thank you so much. Appreciate it!

(Photo/Creative Commons)

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