Key lawmaker, unions, discussing ways to fund infrastructure
Richard Neal, Chair of House Ways and Means Committee | AP

WASHINGTON—Richard Neal isn’t waiting for Donald Trump to act to push the repair and upgrade of U.S. infrastructure.

The Massachusetts Democrat, who this year took over the chair of the key tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, has been meeting with colleagues, union leaders, state and local officials, and even some businesses to figure out where to find funds for that objective.

Their aim: Garner enough money, from raising the federal gas tax and elsewhere, to repair crumbling highways, replace broken bridges, upgrade aging subways and airports, modernize the electric grid and install new water lines instead of relying on 100-year-old mains, among other projects.

And the unionists are going to lobby federal lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, for whatever new funds are needed, several leaders pledged this week – regardless of what the GOP president proposes.

They won’t have much trouble making their case. On the morning of an outdoor Capitol Hill press conference on the infrastructure push, May 15, one participant, Rep. Michael Bost, R-Mo., found out that “I-44 westbound in my district” north of St. Louis “was closed when they found a 6-inch crack” in road’s superstructure.

“It’s a safety issue,” the former firefighter added. “How would you like to have your house on fire and have the truck hook up to a hydrant, and the water main serving it breaks?”

Neal’s discussions, including with members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and with the 85-member House Labor and Working Families Caucus, come as once again lawmakers prepare to tackle the problems of U.S. infrastructure – problems so acute the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the country a D+ grade.

ASCE calculates the U.S. needs to spend $2 trillion to bring present infrastructure up to snuff, and $2.5 trillion more to bring it into the 21st century, including improvements to key intersections, highways and rail lines and to expand and create access to broadband and the Internet nationwide.

Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., an Electrical Worker and former president of the South Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council, disclosed Neal’s discussions while introducing and moderating the press conference, part of National Infrastructure Week.

That’s a joint lobbying effort by workers, business and state and local officials to push action on a comprehensive multi-year infrastructure bill, rather than the series of too-small stopgap bills lawmakers have approved for the last decade or so.

The legislation “is gonna be broad and robust and have the same standards on the East Coast as it has on the West Coast,” including putting tens of thousands of construction workers on jobs at Davis-Bacon Act local prevailing wages, Norcross said.

“Davis-Bacon is for everyone in construction,” added Painters President Ken Rigmaiden. “It assures everyone they get an appropriate wage for their work, can pay taxes, and can contribute to their communities and to society.”

“Nobody is productive when they’re getting stuck in traffic jams,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., another Electrical Worker. “You don’t have to tell that to someone from my district in Los Angeles.”

And while the cost of upgrading infrastructure is high, the “cost of doing nothing is high: People will die,” Norcross declared, in bridge collapses, widespread floods over river levees and more episodes of lead poisoning of kids through aging water lines, such as in Flint, Mich., Newark, N.J., and Detroit.

Repairing and replacing infrastructure also saves jobs, said Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa. His upset win—with huge union support and an openly pro-union platform — in an early special election in 2018 in a very-GOP district presaged that fall’s Democratic sweep.

Lamb explained Shell Oil is building the nation’s largest petrochemical plant in his new district. “But upriver from it, there’s a lock and dam” that’s so old “it has a 50% chance of failing.” If the dam fails, the plant goes with it.

The lawmakers offered all that evidence and more – including the positive economic impact Sanchez and others cited — for a massive effort to repair and upgrade U.S. infrastructure.  But they admitted doing so faces two big hurdles: Lack of money and lack of people.

Despite huge efforts by state and local officials to raise their gas taxes and fund their projects, federal-level funding is still lacking. And even if the federal gas tax, now 18.4 cents per gallon, is increased for the first time in 26 years, it still won’t be enough. Building trades unions back a gas tax hike.

“We also have the aviation tax, the waterways trust fund – which has a surplus that could be cut loose – and bond issues,” North America’s Building Trades President Sean McGarvey said in response to a reporter’s question. “All of those are being considered.”

But they’re also waiting to see what Trump comes up with, as a follow-up to an infrastructure discussion he had two weeks ago in the White House with Democratic congressional leaders.

Trump, himself a developer, endorsed the $2 trillion for current repairs and upgrades. But he didn’t propose how to pay for it. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., declared the week after the Trump-Dem confab that he won’t let lawmakers consider raising the gas tax, or any other hike.

The second hurdle, however, is people, or lack of them. The lawmakers said about one-third of the 7.4 million current U.S. job openings are in the building trades – and increasing by thousands every day as the Baby Boomers retire.

So part of the unions’ infrastructure campaign is also to campaign for more money for apprenticeship programs. Combined, unions run the nation’s largest training program for any industry, and their high-quality courses and on-the-job training prepare high school graduates to step immediately into jobs paying $60,000-$80,000 annually, with no college debt.

Finding new construction workers includes finding them among the foreign-born, Rigmaiden said in an interview afterwards. His union leads a six-union coalition campaign for permanent U.S. protection of some half a million people – all from communities of color in war-torn or disaster-hit countries – to stay in the U.S. for good.

Many of those Temporary Protected Status workers have been here for years or decades, and many are employed in construction. Trump wants to throw them all out of the country, along with the Dreamers and other undocumented people.

“Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said of legalizing the TPS beneficiaries and increasing apprenticeship funding. “The politicians we’re working with, Democrats and Republicans, are giving us assurances” on both funding and Davis-Bacon. “We’re hoping to get this done.“


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.