WASHINGTON ― Last January, in his first primetime State of the Union-style address to Congress, the newly elected President Donald Trump pledged to launch a “national rebuilding” program the likes of which had not been seen since the days of Dwight Eisenhower. The initiative, he promised, would upgrade the nation’s crumbling infrastructure with new roads, bridges, tunnels and railways, “gleaming across our very, very beautiful land.”
Nearly a year later, after many bitter fights over Obamacare, taxes and immigration, Trump hasn’t made any progress on fulfilling that infrastructure promise. His administration is expected to release its long-delayed proposal in the coming weeks. Based on the details leaked so far, it will likely fall short of the ambitious $1 trillion plan he described on the campaign trail.
“America is a nation of builders. We built the Empire State Building in just one year. Isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?” Trump asked Tuesday in his first State of the Union address to Congress.
Trump also called for “at least 1.5 trillion in investment,” more than he initially proposed, a remark that received tepid applause from Republican lawmakers.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated last year that the U.S. needs to invest $4.59 trillion in infrastructure by 2025. Federal spending on new infrastructure, however, has remained flat in recent years. The popular Highway Trust Fund, which helps pay for the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems, is losing money when adjusted for inflation.
Trump’s latest plan will seek to leverage $200 billion in direct federal spending into an additional $800 billion in infrastructure investment from states, cities, nonprofits and the private sector. The plan puts a greater onus on state and local officials to find additional revenue to fund the projects, which will likely mean allowing more tolls or usage fees to create revenue streams that lure in private investors. The challenge is especially difficult for communities in rural areas ― many of which supported Trump in 2016 ― where fewer people are available to help spread the cost of new infrastructure.
According to a leaked draft of Trump’s infrastructure proposal, 50 percent of the total outlay in federal dollars ― $100 billion ― will be used to encourage “state, local and private investment in core infrastructure by providing incentives in the form of grants.” Rural projects will receive another 25 percent of the total share of funding ― $50 billion ― while the remainder will go to existing loan programs and “transformative projects” like high-speed rail.
The biggest question mark about the proposal is how it is to be financed. Rather than creating new sources of revenue ― like a moderate increase in the gas tax, which is backed by groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce but fiercely opposed by Republicans in Congress ― White House infrastructure adviser D.J. Gribbin suggested last week that the administration would support “repurposing” funding from other transportation programs like Amtrak or the Highway Trust Fund.
The Trump administration’s 2018 fiscal year budget proposed deep cuts to the Transportation Department, Amtrak, mass transit and the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works programs. It would also completely eliminate the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) initiative, a grant program popular among cities and states across the country that was set up by the Obama administration’s 2009 economic stimulus package.
“There are reductions, as you know, in last year’s budget when it comes to Amtrak, when it comes to transit, when it comes to a number of programs,” Gribbin said last week at the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting. “We will propose repurposing those dollars. What we’re not proposing is, you know, eliminating the Highway Trust Fund or eliminating state revolving funds. So the major delivery mechanisms for funding infrastructure should remain in place. We do want to repurpose some dollars.”
Congress will ultimately decide whether to enact the cuts proposed by the White House. But for now, lawmakers face another looming deadline to fund the government by Feb. 8, and they’re expected to do so with another stop-gap measure.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities cautioned on Tuesday that shuffling funds from existing transportation programs to help pay for Trump’s infrastructure plan would amount to a “bait and switch.” The progressive think tank said it would mean financing “a high-profile new initiative with one hand while taking away important funding from infrastructure with the other.”
Moreover, the benefits of new infrastructure development for the country may also be offset by a significant repeal of environmental protections. According to a leaked draft obtained by The Washington Post, the Trump administration is planning on gutting environmental requirements in order to make it easier to construct roads, bridges and pipelines. The move follows Trump’s promises to fix what he has called the “badly broken” process for garnering the permits to build infrastructure.
Democrats and activists see the planned rollback of environmental regulations in the infrastructure plan as part of a broader attack on the environment. The Trump administration has already sought to reverse more than 60 environmental rules, including those relating to flood building standards, bans on pesticides, methane reporting, greenhouse gases, offshore drilling, protections for wild animals, sewage treatment, fracking and train safety, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
“When the administration and its Republican allies in Congress use terms like ‘streamlining’ and ‘permitting reform,’ what they are really saying is that they want to eliminate clean air and water safeguards and cut public participation when important decisions are made,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement. “We can’t let that happen.”
After the president’s State of the Union address ended, lawmakers from both parties expressed concern about how the administration planned to pay for the proposal.
“This is an issue where the details matter,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said. “The total amount of the spend, how it’s paid for, what the elements of the bill are, are critically important.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va), a red state Democrat who is up for re-election this year, echoed the sentiment.
“I want to see where the money’s coming from and how he intends to pay for it. But, you know, it sounds good.”