U.S. Chamber head Donohue offering $25,000 for best infrastructure funding ideas

Thomas Donohue is tired of just talking about infrastructure. Now, he’s putting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s money where his mouth is.

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Thomas Donohue is tired of just talking about infrastructure. Now, he’s putting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s money where his mouth is.

The longtime Chamber of Commerce president and CEO has begun a contest of sorts. The Chamber is offering cash prizes totaling $25,000 to those innovators who devise the “best, most viable ideas” for long-term, sustainable funding for infrastructure improvements.

Apparently, either simply raising the federal tax on fuel – 18.4 cents on gasoline, 24.4 cents on diesel, unchanged since 1993 – is either too easy an idea or too politically difficult to win the prize.

“As everyone knows, the challenge is how to pay for it,” Donohue said at his annual State of American Business forecast at the Chamber across the street from the White House on Jan. 10.

The Chamber long has lobbied for a nickel-a-gallon increase in the fuel tax for five years in order to help raise the billions experts say is necessary to pay for modernization of the nation’s bridges, highways and intermodal connections.

“You’ve heard me say for years that a modest increase to the motor vehicle fuel user fee—which hasn’t been adjusted for 25 years—can be a big part of the solution,” Donohue said. “I’ve also said the Chamber is open to viable alternatives—but I haven’t heard too many other ideas.”

That’s about to change. Donohue said he wants to “hear from everyone—students, academics, business leaders, the people out there doing the building—everyone.”

Donohue says the Chamber will consolidate and publish “all the good ideas we receive” and have a debate on some of those ideas in Washington at the Chamber’s annual infrastructure summit on Feb. 5.

Noting he’s been working on these issues for more than 30 years—first as president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations and now at the Chamber—Donohue said it’s his “hope that the public and private sector leaders of this country will finally come together and help build the next generation of U.S. infrastructure—a modern, safe and efficient system that history will regard as one of the great American feats of the 21st century.”

Toward that end, Donohue reported internal surveys of Chamber business leaders and CEOs show economic optimism in the country to be “consistently high.” Encouraged by economic growth, he said business owners are thanking deregulation and tax reform for the economic growth.

The Chamber is forecasting 2.6 percent rise in economic growth this year—down from the 3.5 and 3.4 percent rises in the second and third quarters of 2018—but up from the 2.3 percent growth in 2017. The 2.6 predicted rise in GDP growth is about what other major private economists have been predicting—with some exceptions.

“Now there are some who seem determined to talk us into a downturn,” Donohue said. “But rumblings of a recession just don’t match up with reality. Even with all the challenges in Washington, uncertainties in the world and fluctuations in the markets, strong economic conditions are expected to hold steady for the foreseeable future.”

Calling the United States “a nation of dreamers,” the Chamber head said infrastructure improvements are integral to opportunity. “But our highways, bridges, ports and waterways have long stood as monuments to American achievement—and they have literally moved the American Dream.”

Donohue said “nearly everyone agrees” that the U.S. needs more modern infrastructure. But he said the sense of urgency and making this a “major national priority” has been lacking.

 “Things are only going to get worse, which is why we are calling on our leaders to pass a significant infrastructure package this year,” Donohue said.

Of course, President Trump has been talking about infrastructure since he was a long-shot candidate for the Republican nomination in 2015. But that’s all it’s been—talk. Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate have sent signals privately that a large—perhaps as high as $1 trillion—infrastructure package might be a good way to show some level of bipartisanship in Washington.

"We are a nation of dreamers,” Donohue said. “Even better, we are a nation where dreams can be achieved. Let’s keep it that way.”

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