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Congressman Lloyd Doggett

Representing the 35th District of Texas

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Austin American-Statesman: Texans are cool to Trump’s initiative

February 13, 2018

AUSTIN BUILDING IN LINE FOR UPGRADE

President Donald Trump’s new budget plan proposes spending more than ›28 million to upgrade a government-owned Austin building that is home to a U.S. Treasury Department office. The facility, at 1619 Woodward St., is known as the Austin Finance Center, and the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service is housed there, according to federal documents. As part of the budget plan, the federal General Services Administration proposes spending ›28.72 million for“a repair and alteration project to modernize”the facility. According to plans filed in 2016, the repairs needed include heating, ventilation and air conditioning replacement; separation of storm and sanitary lines; domestic water line replacement; restroom upgrades; main electrical switchboard replacement; window replacement; and power distribution system replacement. The 48-year-old building is part of a 40-acre federal campus in Southeast Austin, along with an IRS service center, the Department of Veterans Affairs automation center and a leased IRS office/warehouse facility.

Toll roads have fallen out of favor in Texas, but the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan relies heavily on private-sector money, as well as federal loans. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2017

The Trump administration’s infrastructure plan, with its heavy reliance on the private sector and federal loans, landed Monday at a time when those approaches to building highways have fallen out of fashion in Texas.

The administration’s plan is centered on using $200 billion in federal money to leverage more than $1 trillion in local and state tax dollars, as well as private investment, to fix America’s infrastructure, such as roads, highways, ports and airports.

Given the Trump plan’s offering of only $200 billion in federal dollars over 10 years, plus the chilly political climate in Texas lately toward toll roads, the reaction from some transportation officials and activists was somewhere between muted and dismissive.

“They kept talking $1.5 trillion, and now it’s down to $200 billion,” state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said of the plan, which Trump officials have been promising to reveal for more than a year. “We also don’t know how it’s going to be allocated (between transportation and other infrastructure). Until we know that, there’s not much really concrete we can do with it.”

Terri Hall, executive director of Texans for Toll-free Highways, said the Trump plan is out of step with the president’s populist campaign. The plan, now only at the beginning of what will be a long and uncertain trip through Congress, would put half of that $200 billion into an incentive program and allow only 20 percent of a project’s total cost to come from the fund.

The balance would have to raised through borrowing, generally paid back by tolls, or from state or local taxes. And the plan contemplates lifting current restrictions on putting tolls on interstate highways.

“It does not align with what Trump voters elected him to do,” said Hall, who lives in Comal County and has been working against toll roads for more than a decade. “It was supposed to be for the worker and Main Street, not Wall Street. That’s just a huge problem. It doesn’t do much good to give us the Trump tax cuts, to put money in one pocket, and then pay tolls and take it out of the other pocket.”

David White of Texans for Traffic Relief, a group formed last fall by business groups in reaction to state leaders’ sudden turn against toll roads, liked the plan’s promises to ease permitting and put out a welcome mat for investors.

“However, Texans for Traf-›ic Relief has serious concerns about our state’s ability to take full advantage of the plan because of current policies the state has that restrict private-sector investment,” White said in an emailed statement. He called on the Legislature to “take action in 2019 to ensure we can take full advantage of it.”

While awaiting details and what emerges from the lawmaking process, Nichols said it is good that the president has put the country’s infrastructure needs into the conversation. And he said there are big highway projects in which some added federal funding could fill gaps.

But U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat who has represented shifting parts of Central Texas since 1994, said the plan is “so little, so late and so phony.”

He said the plan flips the transportation funding burden to state and local governments, at least for any new funding, although it would not affect how existing federal transportation money is disbursed. And ultimately the White House plan will mean “selling off our roads and bridges to wealthy investors,” he said.

“Don’t expect any meaningful help from Trump,” Doggett said, “to unclog I-35 or anything else.”