One of President Trump’s common refrains on the campaign trail was that he would help rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure, leaning on his extensive experience in real estate and development to shepherd forth a plan to cut red tape, move projects forward, and put this country to work.
More than 100 days into his administration, his grand design has yet to take shape, though it’s been a constant source of conversation in D.C. There has been movement over the last few days, with reports saying that the Trump team has solicited bids for potential infrastructure investments from across the country and looks toward releasing a plan in the fall that would steer $200 billion of public money to infrastructure investment.
Curbed spoke to infrastructure experts to get their take on Trump’s nascent plans: what should be included, what to watch for as plans come together, and its chances to clear both houses of Congress and help America get to work.
Watch the numbers
Henry Petroski, a Duke professor and infrastructure expert, says that spending on roads and construction is “like apple pie and motherhood—everybody’s for it.” There’s a lot of talk about some kind of plan, a proposal both candidates supported last year, and representatives and senators will have a tough time voting against it, Petroski says. It’s still taking shape, but based on previous reports and statements from Trump administration officials, it would include a combination of government investment, new funding mechanisms to encourage private investment, and regulatory reform to help accelerate approvals and construction timelines.
That makes it all the more important to watch how funding is allocated. The trillion-dollar proposal the Trump administration is developing sounds like a lot, and it is: The federal government’s annual budget is about $3.8 trillion, including entitlements such as Social Security and Medicaid. Petroski believes the spending will most likely be spread out over 10 years, which means a 100 billion dollars annually, roughly double the amount currently being spent on roads and bridges. Doubling funding is a big deal, but it’s important to put things in perspective.
“We can’t just look at the headlines that say $1 trillion; we need the details,” he says. “This isn’t just an issue with this administration, however. This happens with every administration.”
Will states take the lead?
While the Trump administration has promised to have a plan together by this fall, some analysts, such as Petroski, are skeptical. He feels that health care and other priorities may derail infrastructure this year, at least on the federal level.
Federal delays in approving new spending, however, have spurred many cities and states to take action. Federal infrastructure is tagged to the gasoline tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993 (Trump has flirted with the idea of raising it to fund infrastructure spending). But many states have raised their own rates or passed spending measure to fund infrastructure (federal dollars are, on average, only responsible for 25 percent of infrastructure spending, according to Petroski).
“Close to half the states have raised the state gasoline taxes in the last couple of years, and the others are considering it,” he says. “They simply can’t wait for the federal government to do something.”
Will we build green infrastructure?
In addition to how much we’re going to spend on infrastructure, another big question is what we’re going to spend money on. Armando Carbonell, a senior fellow and urban policy expert at the Lincoln Institute, says one of the biggest problems with any Trump infrastructure plan is the administration’s stance on climate change. It’s not just that any potential new construction may ignore public transit and sustainable options that reduce carbon emissions, it’s that not acknowledging a changing climate means money will be misspent.
“We need infrastructure to protect communities from the effects of climate change that can’t be avoided,” he says. “Sea-level rise, flooding, the effects of wildfires; in many cases, there are infrastructure needs that should be a priority, such as protecting coastal cities. If we don’t take climate change into account, we may well build infrastructure that is vulnerable. There are simple things we can do, such as building on higher elevations, that take account of a rising sea level. If we don’t do that, any investment might be a bad one.”
How will regulations be changed?
One of Trump’s promises has been that by creating a new regulatory system, reforming current processes, and encouraging public-private investments (or P3s) he can cut red tape and move long-stalled projects forward. Like other aspects of an infrastructure overhaul taking shape, the devil is in the details.
Carbonell says proper oversight and regulatory update could give the sector a massive upgrade, saving time and money. There are “great benefits” to looking at what and how we do things, especially the procurement and finance processes.
“I don’t have a black or white view of P3s, other than to say people need to be careful and look out for the public interest,” says Carbonell. “With proper regulations and design, P3s may be part of the solution. But we can’t get something for nothing. If we want a trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure, we need to spend a trillion dollars.”
Others have a more pessimistic view of pushing for more private investment in infrastructure. According to urbanist and journalist Yonah Freemark, the push for privatization in infrastructure investment is consistent with Trump’s rhetoric—Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has been open to finding new private funding sources for infrastructure, and the proposed Trump budget does make massive cuts in public transportation spending—but will also significantly shape the way any new infrastructure policy works.
“One thing we know is that there’s no way private-sector entities would be involved with an infrastructure project unless it involves user fees or ways to make revenue,” he says. “That makes sense; why would you invest in a project that couldn’t make money? But that changes the decision-making process. It’s the perspective of a profit-making private company, not the public sector.”
That translates into support for moneymaking projects, such as pipelines, toll bridges, and toll roads, not, say, water pipes, or roadways in less dense rural areas, according to Freemark.
What kind of jobs will it provide?
Trump has also promoted infrastructure as a jobs program to help with unemployment. According to Scott Myers-Lipton, a professor of sociology at San Jose State University and author of Rebuild America: Solving the Economic Crisis through Civic Works and Social Solutions to Poverty, it’s tough to “square the circle” when it comes to providing high-wage jobs while cutting regulations (and potentially, labor protections) and encouraging private investment.
He sees New Deal-era social works programs, which provided direct employment through the government, as a much more effective means of creating a large-scale jobs program and truly putting America back to work.
“How is it going to help people earn stable incomes?” he says. ”So far, he has not yet put forward a plan that, in that Rooseveltian sense, meets the goal of getting living wage jobs to as many people as possible. This was one of his big promises, spend big on infrastructure and drive unemployment down.”
Trump’s base, especially the white working class who came out in large numbers to vote for him, have watched wages stagnate and jobs go under. If the president really wants to Make America Great Again, says Myers-Lipton, he should choose direct public funding and employment, instead of the P3 model. He supports the Humphrey‐Hawkins Full Employment and Training Act, which was introduced by Michigan representative John Conyers, as a model for using public works to get people back to work and reduce poverty.