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As federal TIGER debate swirls, infrastructure could be on hold
Illinois Correspondent
PEORIA, Ill. — President Donald Trump’s $1 trillion pledge to reconstruct the nation’s infrastructure has been relegated back in the legislative line as the White House and Congress deal with health care, immigration and reported shake-ups within the administration itself.
This is according to two dozen administration officials, legislators and labor leaders, the New York Times’ Glenn Thrush reported July 23. The article pointed out Trump’s team has yet to produce the detailed infrastructure repair plan he promised, nor have any members been named to a special board he promised would be created to green-light infrastructure spending proposals.

In agriculture circles, proponents of Trump’s publicprivate infrastructure repair plan are lobbying for better rural roads, bridges, locks and dams. One such proponent is Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.

He predicted shortly after Trump’s early June “infrastructure week” rally at an Ohio River lock and dam that the current state of affairs in Congress and within the administration might move transportation infrastructure to the rear of the political food chain.

“A concern that I and so many others have on this issue and a host of others is whether all of the political oxygen will get sucked out of the room due to all the time and energy being devoted elsewhere,” Steenhoek said June 8, after attending the Ohio event as an invited guest of the administration. “Regardless of one's political persuasions, it continues to be discouraging that the long ‘to do list’ on behalf of the American people continues to be insufficiently addressed.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who leads infrastructure efforts in the Senate, told reporters while consideration of a proposal could come in 2018, he expects to hear a plan from the administration sometime this fall. But Trump’s $1 trillion plan seems nearly forgotten as Congress attends to the debt ceiling and a tax overhaul, along with the health insurance debate, among other of the president’s campaign promises and proposals.

“It remains to be seen how the President intends to provide $200 billion in federal funding and design a system that generates an additional $800 billion in private equity to address our transportation challenges.

Both are ambitious amounts,” said Steenhoek. “To provide some context, the Highway Trust Fund generates around $35 billion each year.”

While the nation waits to hear details of $1 trillion for infrastructure improvements, the House released a transportation, housing and urban development bill that would eliminate funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant program. One of Trump’s campaign promises was to end funding for the Obama-era program, which has delivered nearly $4.6 billion in funding since 2009, and was appropriated $500 million in funding in fiscal year 2017. Following the House action, the Senate introduced a version of the bill that includes $550 million for the TIGER program for FY 2018.

Proponents of TIGER, such as Scott Sigman, transportation and infrastructure lead for the Illinois Soybean Assoc. (ISA), say the program supports rural and urban communities looking to jump-start needed infrastructure projects. “ISA has supported local applications for TIGER grants to develop container-on-barge service on the Illinois River, and to address improvements in Chicagoland for the region and the nation,” said Sigman.

“The organization recognizes the need for such competitive grants to support rural communities, especially given that there has been a ‘rural communities threshold’ in past iterations of the TIGER grant program that assures some portion of the investments contribute to improvements in rural communities.”

He detailed why this threshold is so vital to farming regions that might otherwise struggle to obtain federal funding to fix or expand infrastructure: “There have been a couple of decades of population decline that translates into a declining tax base utilizing local funds, as well as a deterioration or dispersal in the rural communities’ voting demographics. 
The dispersion of rural populations adversely impacts the influence, and highlights how important the voice for support for rural infrastructure must be through such programs that provide opportunities for federal investments in rural communities and freight infrastructure.”

While the House bill zeroes out FY 2018 funding for TIGER, it also includes $17.8 billion in “discretionary” appropriations for the U.S. Department of Transportation targeted at “essential investments in transportation infrastructure” as well as “fundamental community development and housing programs,” according to a news release from the House Appropriations Committee.

The House and Senate bills will now go to committee for reconciliation.