In his State of the Union address on Feb. 5, President Donald Trump again said he wants America’s infrastructure revamped and implied that Congress still does, too, but he offered no new details on how to go about it.
In a wide-ranging and spirited speech that ran for nearly an hour and a half, the president remarked on an array of domestic and foreign policy issues. On some, he spoke of at length; but on others, such as infrastructure, he gave only passing mention.
Trump’s remarks vacillated at times between exhorting Congress to act with him in bipartisan fashion to accomplish various goals on one hand, while not giving any ground on some highly divisive issues, especially his call for a multi-billion dollar wall or barrier system on our southern border — a battle that precipitated the recent record-long government shutdown and may well force another in ten days' time.
“Many of us campaigned on the same core promises: to defend American jobs and demand fair trade for American workers; to rebuild and revitalize our nation’s infrastructure; to reduce the price of healthcare and prescription drugs; to create an immigration system that is safe, lawful, modern and secure; and to pursue a foreign policy that puts America’s interests first,” the president said early in his remarks.
Later in the speech, he returned briefly to infrastructure. “Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure,” Trump said. “I know that the Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill — and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting-edge industries of the future. This is not an option. This is a necessity.”
And that was all he said on that topic — a total of 63 words in this speech. But that was enough to draw praise from some key transportation-related stakeholder groups.
Shortly after Trump completed his address, American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear released a statement saying he “applauded” the president for his “proactive calls to address the nation's aging infrastructure” and to “modernize” trade relationships via the new treaty recently negotiated with Canada and Mexico, which still must be ratified by Congress.
"Tonight, President Trump called for a national, bipartisan effort to restore our country's declining infrastructure – and America's truckers are answering that call," Spear said in his statement. "A win on this issue will require real investment, not budgetary gimmicks as tried in years past. That is why America's truckers, along with a broad coalition of the business community, have pledged our financial commitment to making this national priority a reality.
“Decades of failed leadership in Washington have led us to this point,” he continued, “which is why we commend the president for seizing this opportunity to bring all sides together to forge a common path forward. Restoring our national infrastructure to greatness will further ignite our economy, make us more competitive abroad, and give Americans more time to spend with family and less time stuck in traffic."
Spear also urged Congress to move quickly on the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that is intended to replace NAFTA. "Any significant disruption to those trading relationships would have serious consequences for trucking and the economy, so we join President Trump in his call for Congress to quickly ratify the USMCA trade agreement."
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials also welcomed Trump’s latest remarks on infrastructure. “The president’s State of the Union Address is once again making transportation infrastructure investment a top national priority,” said Jim Tymon, AASHTO executive director, in a statement. “Transportation has long been a bipartisan concern, and this year, with the administration’s support a transportation bill can be that rare opportunity to bring members of Congress together from both sides of the aisle.
“AASHTO and its member state departments of transportation stand ready to work with the Administration and Congress on a national plan to shore up the Highway Trust Fund and make the investments needed to modernize our aging transportation infrastructure,” he added.
Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, a construction-industry trade group, suggested in a statement on the speech that Congress needs to pick up the inrastructure ball and run with it. "We strongly urge Congress to act on the president's call to craft new, bipartisan, infrastructure legislation,” he said. "This association and our tens of thousands of member firms will work tirelessly to educate and encourage members of Congress to take the steps needed to improve our aging and over-burdened infrastructure.
“Our message will be clear, the most effective way to support continued economic growth and prosperity is by investing in infrastructure,” Sandherr added.
The Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors in a statement also urged the Trump administration and Congress “to unite in the coming months on infrastructure, a bipartisan bright spot.” CAGTC Executive Director Elaine Nessle said, “Infrastructure investment is a bipartisan issue at its core. For too many years, federal freight infrastructure investment has lagged while our population and national economy grow. This financial burden cannot be shouldered by states, localities and the private sector alone. There needs to be a commitment to driving an investment plan at the federal level.”
At the outset of his address, the president made an appeal for bipartisanship: “Millions of our fellow citizens are watching us now, gathered in this great chamber, hoping that we will govern not as two parties but as one Nation. The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people.”
Indeed, Trump went on to praise several recent bipartisan actions taken by Congress, including passing “unprecedented legislation to confront the opioid crisis” and “groundbreaking criminal justice reform. “
On the other hand, the president seemed to want to chide the new Democratic House majority into forsaking its constitutional role as a counterweight to the executive branch of government. “An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations,” said Trump. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way! We must be united at home to defeat our adversaries abroad.”
Alluding to the recent government shutdown somewhat obliquely, Trump said, “Republicans and Democrats must join forces again to confront an urgent national crisis. The Congress has 10 days left to pass a bill that will fund our government, protect our homeland, and secure our southern border.”
Trump said he is seeking funding for “a new physical barrier, or wall, to secure the vast areas between our ports of entry” that will be “a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier — not just a simple concrete wall.” He made a bipartisan appeal for getting this built: “So let’s work together, compromise, and reach a deal that will truly make America safe.”
But whatever shape it may take, the border wall’s high cost and perceived limitations will keep it an issue of great contention on Capitol Hill, let alone across the country.
Fighting over the wall may well bring on another government shutdown. At best, wrangling over the wall will take Congress away from focusing its efforts on other legislation that could be passed relatively easily with bipartisan support — including infrastructure funding.