Senator Barrasso At Center Of Debate Over Infrastructure

Feb 10, 2017

Credit Wyoming Public Media

Wyoming’s junior senator, John Barrasso, is now chairman of the committee tasked with crafting President Donald Trump’s call for a massive infrastructure proposal. Trump wants to rebuild roads, bridges, railways and airports across the country. 

Senator Barrasso is known as a penny pinching conservative, but when it comes to transportation he thinks Washington has been the one pinching Wyoming pennies.

Well Washington has been running behind. They’ve been putting the responsibility on the states – that works in a number of locations, but when you look at the size of Wyoming and the number of miles of roads, the distance between places and the number of people that live in Wyoming, it’s not reasonable to expect the people of Wyoming to pay for all the work on the roads.”

Wyoming Department of Transportation Director Bill Panos told the committee that Wyoming’s highways, especially the interstates, are in need of repair. He says tourism plays a big part in that. 

“Our highways enable tens of millions of visitors each year to visit scenic wonders like Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore, so those highways ensure that tourism dollars are spent in America, furthering national economic goals. So there is a national interest and plenty of good reasons for the nation to invest in surface transportation in rural states.”

Panos also explained that much of the wear and tear on Wyoming’s roads and bridges is also due to all the big rigs that traverse the state.

“Highways in our rural states enable truck movements between the west coast and the large cities of the Midwest and the east. They benefit people and commerce at both ends of the journey. Our highways enable significant agricultural, energy and natural resource products to move from their rural points of origin to national and world markets.”

Many conservative heads turned when then president-elect Trump called for a trillion dollar spending bill after Republicans had just rejected repeated calls for such a package from President Obama. That puts Senator Barrasso, who is now chairman of the public works committee, in a difficult spot, because Democrats started calling for everything from investing in school modernization to high speed rail.

“My job is keeping it focused and especially on this committee, it’s highways, it’s transportation, it’s bridges , it’s roadways also waterways – and that’s a big part of it, and that’s where the discussion is going right now.”

Progressive darling Bernie Sanders of Vermont sits on the committee and has a starkly different vision for infrastructure than Barrasso does. He’s calling for the bill to also address the lack of broadband in many parts of rural America.

“We are the richest country in the history of the world. We used to, Mr. Chairman, lead the world in cutting edge infrastructure. That is no longer the case – we are now behind many many other countries. And the result of that is the loss of productivity. The result of that is the loss of safety – too many accidents occur because of our crumbling infrastructure. And the result of that is the loss of economic potential in jobs.”

Delaware Senator Tom Carper is the top Democrat on the public works committee. He cites a study from the Global Institute that calls for infusing between $150 to 180 billion in infrastructure annually.  

“It would almost double GDP for the last quarter. It would create some 1.8 million new jobs by 2020. For a lot of people on the sidelines, would like to go to work, need to go to work, this would be great place for them to go to work, working on these projects.”

But Barrasso is pushing against the calls to lard up the bill with pet projects. He says his committee’s makeup gives rural states a leg up in this year’s infrastructure battle.

“Look at the makeup of our committee, we have the senators from Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming, Alaska. We are states where there is significant need for, not for big projects, but for just the routine maintenance for bridges, for roads and also waterways are a part of this as well.”

Finding a way to pay for it will be the challenge.

“So we need to find a funding source. We need to make sure it works, but realistically the ideas of toll roads and things like that aren’t practical in many of our rural states.” said Barrasso.

The battle over whether to even do a big infrastructure bill is testing the unity of the GOP because the party’s president wants it but many rank and file lawmakers are wary of spending so much money. That puts Barrasso in an awkward spot: If he can bridge that divide he’ll win a lot of praise, but if he fails your roads and bridges may continue to crumble on his watch.