STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today, the White House says President Trump will offer a plan to do this.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will build gleaming, new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land.
INSKEEP: The White House says it wants to spend $1.5 trillion on infrastructure. Most of that money, though, would not be federal money. It's hoped that state and local governments, plus the private sector, would pay. Congressman Peter DeFazio is the top Democrat on the House transportation and infrastructure committee, so he's one of the lawmakers who would consider all this. Congressman, good morning.
PETER DEFAZIO: Steve, good morning.
INSKEEP: Can you support some version of the president's plan?
DEFAZIO: Well, I can support a robust infrastructure plan that makes real federal investment, restores our partnership with the states and localities, and there can be in some places a what's called P3, or a private public partnership component. But what they're proposing here has no funding source. They're vaguely talking about cutting other infrastructure or transportation or something to fund it. We don't know. There has to be real investment. Then there's a couple of big problems here. I mean, Paul Ryan is absolutely opposed to raising the user fee. The gas tax hasn't been raised since 1993. The president needs to take the lead on funding. An imaginary $200 billion of cuts somewhere else to fund this is not going to get us where we need to be.
INSKEEP: Let me make sure that we're clear on what you're saying. Two hundred billion dollars is the number that the White House has used as their share, the federal share, to be precise, of the infrastructure plan. You're saying in order to raise that money, you would have to raise the gas tax, which is the largest single source of funding for federal transportation spending.
DEFAZIO: The gas tax hasn't been raised since 1993. Twenty-five states have gone ahead and raised gas taxes or other fees to fund transportation. They're doing their share. The feds aren't. You know, this was an Eisenhower program started in the '50s, 60 years ago. It was paid for by a user fee. Ronald Reagan put transit into it. He said, we can't ignore our cities. It's time to - you know, for the federal government to step up. It doesn't have to be a gas tax. There are other ways you can raise revenue. But we need more federal revenue. You can't say we're going to cut somewhere else.
INSKEEP: Suppose that the president came a little closer to your view, Congressman. I'd like to ask a basic political question. Democrats are early in an election year. Democrats are hoping to capture at least one House of Congress, and there is a debate in your party as to whether to cooperate with the president on anything, or whether there's just no benefit in that. In the end, he's going to make you look bad. Do you want to cooperate with this president on infrastructure?
DEFAZIO: This is ultimately about the United States of America. We used to have a transportation system the envy of the world. Now we're, you know - we're almost a laughing stock. The deterioration - 140,000 bridges need repair or replacement on the national highway system. Forty percent of the roads need to be totally rebuilt, and we have a hundred-billion dollar backlog in transit. People are dying or have been dying in Washington, D.C., because of deteriorated transit systems. So...
INSKEEP: Is that a yes? Is that a yes, though? You would work with the president to get a bill that he would sign.
DEFAZIO: If the president will help me roll Paul Ryan and get a meaningful bill with real investment, you know, I'll work across the aisle. I'll work with anybody.
INSKEEP: If the president will help you roll Paul Ryan, you're saying. In other words, you don't think that...
DEFAZIO: Essentially, yes. Paul Ryan is opposed. I've been talking to Paul for years. I said, let's just index the gas tax and bond. Nope, can't do that. We're Republicans. We don't raise taxes.
INSKEEP: Index it, meaning it goes up with inflation and so forth. Got you.
DEFAZIO: Right. I've proposed that we would index the diesel tax, the gas tax. We could bond $500 billion for service and pay it back with long-term bonds. No new unpaid-for debt, unlike their tax bill, unlike last week's bill in the House and the Senate. So this would be paid for. But it would be an increment. And it would never go up more than one-and-a-half cents a gallon a year. I say, who's going to lose their election over one-and-a-half cents a gallon increase in the gas tax? And no one ever raises their hand.
INSKEEP: Well, you never know, I suppose. Just a few seconds left here, Congressman. I'd like to ask if you think that the future of the country or at least of the economy is at stake here.
DEFAZIO: Absolutely. I mean, we're falling behind. Look around the rest of the world. I mean, and the president nailed it when he said, we've got airports that need work. Our harbors need work. Our sewer water systems need work - and, certainly, our transportation systems. All of that is at risk. We need to make federal - we need to be a federal partner. You can't say it's a 20-80 match. It's always been 80-20. (Laughter).
INSKEEP: You're talking about percentages between the federal and state and local.
DEFAZIO: Yeah. It's a national system.
INSKEEP: Congressman, got to stop you there. Congressman Peter DeFazio, appreciate it. Always a pleasure.
DEFAZIO: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.