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Congressman Lou Barletta (R-11) stayed close to his core message on infrastructure and job growth during an appearance on Monday, expressing dismay that such initiatives are getting lost in the GOP’s fight over health care.

“I think if the administration had their way, we’d have tackled infrastructure first,” Barletta said, advocating for more aggressive spending on road-building and other public capital initiatives.

“I’m afraid Congress is going to get stalled in the ‘how do we pay for it’ part,” Barletta said. “Infrastructure will grow the economy and create more tax revenue in return. We need to drive home the point that it’s an investment.”

Barletta spoke before the Keystone Contractors Association, the state’s trade group for the construction industry, at the Radisson Hotel in Camp Hill. The conference was the inaugural event in the KCA’s leadership speaking series.

Barletta was an early supporter of Donald Trump in his run for the Republican nomination, citing Trump’s promise of $1 trillion in additional federal spending on infrastructure. Barletta was in the road construction industry before entering politics.

“I do believe they get it,” when it comes to infrastructure, Barletta said of the Trump administration.

However, the White House infrastructure plan thus far features only $200 billion over 10 years, saying that this money will leverage another $800 billion in private investment. Details of exactly how this would work are limited.

Further, congressional leadership has concentrated on spending cuts instead of new programs. Measures such as the Republican health care plan, which cuts billions from Medicaid due to what the GOP sees as an unsustainable funding arc, play at odds with putting additional tax dollars toward infrastructure.

Barletta, who voted for the health care bill in May, reconciled this juxtaposition by saying that infrastructure funding can and should be justified as self-supporting.

Barletta said he has pressed for the inclusion of a dedicated transportation infrastructure funding stream, involving user fees, as a way to get Trump and Congress moving in the right direction, but said he was “very worried” that haggling over health care cuts and other distractions would see the infrastructure plan go by the wayside.

“I’m not afraid to say I support a user fee,” Barletta said. “If we can guarantee that the money will go toward infrastructure, the American people will support it.”

The issue with any spending bill that doesn’t include a long-term funding mechanism is that it won’t get contractors to invest in new capital, since they have no guarantee of continued work, Barletta said.

He also stressed public-private partnerships — often called “P3s” by builders — as a way to get public infrastructure work done with less overhead.

This is particularly useful when it comes to federal buildings that are historically too large, Barletta said, citing the potential cost savings of newer, consolidated federal offices. Barletta’s initiative to require longer leases and lower footage ratios on federal buildings has saved around $3.4 billion since 2013, he said.

This could be applied to projects such as the construction of a new FBI headquarters, a yearslong initiative that was recently scrapped due to funding holdups. A P3 deal involving a ground lease and leaseback could see the private sector putting capital into the project rather than Congress having to appropriate everything up-front, Barletta said.

But Barletta also recognized that the construction industry is running up against a labor shortage — a concern voiced by a number of attendees at the KCA event — that would cut into a federal infrastructure plan.

“All the contractors I talk to, they say ‘we have work, but we can’t find employees,’” Barletta said. “We have a disconnect … and it’s a big problem.”

Federal support is needed to help businesses and schools work together to develop curricula that fit the current job market, Barletta said, especially when it comes to the skilled trades, which are too often neglected in favor of traditional college programs.

“We need to match the skills to the jobs that exist,” Barletta said. “Welders are now out there making six-figure incomes, but it’s highly technical work. It’s not how it used to be.”

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