Witnesses and lawmakers express doubt about private rail infrastructure investment

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WASHINGTON — At a U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing on rail infrastructure, witnesses told lawmakers that the federal and state governments play a role in sustaining and expanding the nation's rail network, but the private sector, the third component of the Trump administration's trillion-dollar infrastructure plans, would not likely be a player on the rails.

Democrats on the subcommittee that oversees the government's spending on railroads agreed that the government should bear its share of infrastructure costs. Republicans were silent on the issue.

The hearing took place after President Donald Trump sounded a note of doubt about the overall role of private investment. According to news media, in a closed meeting on Sept. 27, the president told a bipartisan group from the House Ways and Means Committee that public-private partnerships were not the solution for repairing the nation's roads, bridges, and ports.

At the same time, Capitol Hill is still waiting for details of Trump's plan to leverage $800 billion of private investment with $200 billion of federal funds.

“I understand that the private sector has a role, the states have a role, but I think the federal government has to have a bigger role,” said U.S. Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J. “Without the support of the federal government, I don't think these projects can be done. Does anyone here believe that the private sector is the sole answer to this? If you do, please tell me, because I don't believe this.”

“If we don't invest in these critical, huge infrastructure projects – and it will take federal investment – at some point the system runs out,” said Amtrak co-Chief Executive Wick Moorman. “We can do a lot of work on state of good repair, we can improve the way we spend money, but it's going to take a lot of federal investment.”

“What you're talking about clearly goes beyond what the private sector at this point is prepared to do,” said Ed Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads. “I think Mr. Moorman's needs go far beyond what the private sector can do.”

Committee members and witnesses discussed how tax reform efforts now under way would affect federal infrastructure investment.

“There is a serious disconnect between our political statements about building infrastructure and the reality of what the tax reform and budget will do to funding availability,” said U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif. He warned that if the Republican-controlled Congress cuts government revenue by up to $5 trillion, “there will be no money for infrastructure investment.”
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