By Ted Mann 

WASHINGTON -- The last time the federal government raised the gas tax that is supposed to fund improvements to America's highways, Pete Buttigieg was 11 years old.

Some 28 years removed from that gas-tax increase, signed by President Bill Clinton in August 1993, Mr. Buttigieg is the federal transportation secretary, working for another president who will try to deliver where predecessors of both parties have failed: crafting a program to rebuild aging roads, dams and railroads, and finding the political will to pay for it.

President Biden will meet Thursday with members of the House of Representatives to discuss his plans for an infrastructure package, a goal that has eluded Democratic lawmakers and his predecessor, Donald Trump, even as members of both parties and outside groups claim there is bipartisan support for such a measure.

Joining the president will be Mr. Buttigieg, now 39, a former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and presidential candidate who says his local experience will help him lead the department that is a major source of federal grants for states and towns.

Mr. Biden campaigned on a promise to pass a $2 trillion infrastructure package and is expected to send Congress an infrastructure proposal after the passage of a Covid-19 relief bill.

Mr. Trump's example may show how hard it is to deliver on something that all parties say they want. Campaigning for president in 2016, Mr. Trump vowed during a TV appearance to do twice as much as Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who had initially proposed a $500 billion package, leading his aides to begin working to meet a $1 trillion target.

In office, President Trump's plans were undermined by his other priorities, such as overturning Obamacare, and his own resistance to elements of the plan designed by his administration. When Mr. Trump finally delivered a proposal to Congress in 2018, it was dead on arrival, thanks in part to the decision to put the burden for raising money for new projects overwhelmingly on states and cities, not the federal government.

House Democrats passed their own $1.5 trillion package last year, but it too went nowhere, thanks to opposition in the then-Republican-controlled Senate.

Democrats hope Mr. Biden can succeed where they and Mr. Trump failed.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation committee, this week called for the federal government to bear the cost of funding a new infrastructure package.

"The states can't go it alone," he said, in a video released by his office. "The cities can't go it alone. They need a federal partner."

Mr. Buttigieg said during his Senate confirmation hearing that he was eager to work on the administration's infrastructure proposal. "Good transportation policy can play no less a role than making possible the American dream," he said at the time.

The Biden administration hasn't revealed the text of its infrastructure package or said what it hopes to build other than listing the categories regularly cited by politicians of both parties: rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges, shoring up aging water infrastructure and expanding broadband in rural areas.

Mr. Biden has said his infrastructure bill will give priority to the response to climate change, but it isn't clear what that would mean in practice. Republicans generally oppose government action and spending to address climate change, as do some centrist Democrats who will hold the key to a bill's passage, especially in the Senate.

Veterans of infrastructure efforts from both parties see the potential for major change. Former Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who chaired the House Transportation committee, pointed to bipartisan legislation to create an infrastructure bank structured like the Federal Home Loan Bank system as a means to provide long-term capital funding for projects outside the annual partisan bickering of the budget cycle.

Former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who like Mr. Shuster now works at the Washington lobbying powerhouse Squire Patton Boggs, noted that the Biden administration already had begun tailoring the criteria of some existing programs, like the DOT's Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant program, to emphasize its climate goals. But that isn't a substitute for a new package of infrastructure legislation, Mr. Slater said.

"They are limited to some degree in the long-term viability and sustainability of an effort like that when you don't have it written into new legislation," he said in an interview.

Neither party has shown the ability to get a law creating new streams of revenue to pay for a major infrastructure package through both houses of Congress. Mr. DeFazio helped pass the $1.5 trillion infrastructure package in 2020 that was dead on arrival in the Senate.

Congress hasn't even raised the gasoline tax that is the primary funding source for the federal Highway Trust Fund in more than a generation. The government last raised the federal gas tax, to 18.4 cents a gallon, in 1993.

Write to Ted Mann at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 04, 2021 07:14 ET (12:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.