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Trump’s State of the Union: $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan lacks detail

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Call for rebuilding offers big vision, but local leaders are still waiting for more details around funding

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After passing his tax bill and attempting to turn the American Health Care Act of 2017 into law, President Trump would, it’s been assumed, finally be able to focus on the need for infrastructure reform, a frequent campaign theme.

The leaked infrastructure plan from earlier this month stirred up additional anticipation that, despite the paucity of past infrastructure weeks, a comprehensive plan would finally be unveiled. Last night’s State of the Union address seemed like the perfect venue to make a broad, bipartisan appeal.

During last night’s address, Trump again sketched out the details of a potentially massive infrastructure plan, a $1.5 trillion investment that would give us safe, fast, reliable and modern infrastructure.

Telling the nation that it is “time to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure,” Trump asked Congress to approve an initiative where every federal dollar was leveraged by state and local spending, as well as private sector investment, as a means to address the huge gulf in what is currently being spent and what is needed.

President Donald J. Trump delivers the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives January 30, 2018 in Washington, DC.
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The President said he wants a plan that “generates” $1.5 trillion, an important phrase that causes many state and local leaders to pause. This has been interpreted as a kind of incentive program. Based on the leaked details, labeled the “Infrastructure Incentive Initiative,” support would be given to projects that can deliver 80 percent of the total. That’s much less than traditionally provided by the federal government, and alarms many local politicians.

State and local leaders are concerned that, based on the leaked plan first reported by Axios, they would be asked to bear a higher burden for new projects. With changes to SALT taxes and other shifts due to tax reform, they may struggle to find new revenue sources, limiting their ability to participate in any new incentive program.

Previous iterations of the administration’s infrastructure plan proposed spending $200 billion in federal dollars to leverage $800 million in state, local, and private spending. While $200 billion sounds monumental, it’s a small fraction of what many experts recommend—the American Society of Civil Engineers says the country needs $2 trillion more to cover a generation of delayed upkeep—and if the previously leaked proposal is to be believed, would favor projects that have potential to generate revenue (“new, non-federal revenue to create sustainable, long-term funding”).

A recent White House briefing also noted that any effort would include a big focus on rural infrastructure—an important addition, since rural projects might otherwise struggle to raise funding—and that half of funding would “go towards incentivizing new state and local investments in infrastructure.”

There also weren’t any specific calls to create new funding sources for the plan, and previous suggestions that the federal government would cut some transit funding to pay for new infrastructure raised the alarm of many. American Public Transportation Association President and CEO Paul Skoutelas said, “That action would be a step backwards and counterproductive, as well as harmful to the economy and to the tens of millions of people who depend on public transportation.”

National League of Cities president, Mark Stodola, current mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, said in a statement last night that cities “are already leveraging every dollar available, and we need our federal partners to pay their share. That’s how we will build for 2050, instead of simply fixing 1950.”

American Council of Engineering Companies CEO David A. Raymond said, “The president’s focus on infrastructure is commendable, but without real federal funding to address the huge backlog of desperately needed improvements to the nation’s roads, bridges, public transit, airports, water systems and other critical assets, it’s an empty promise.”

Even road builders, expected to be big beneficiaries of any new administration plan, due to the potential for toll roads to generate funding, wanted more details.

“The ball is in Capitol Hill’s court,” said American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) President and CEO Pete Ruane in a statement. “If scientists can clone monkeys, Congress ought to be able to figure out how to raise federal dollars to fix the Highway Trust Fund and modernize our choking National Freight Network. Those are the top two infrastructure priorities.”

One of the largest underlying changes the President wants to make is deregulation. “We built the Empire State Building in just one year,” he said. “Isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take ten years just to get a minor permit approved for the building of a simple road?”

Trump has repeatedly pushed back against and repealed regulations, and he believes this is key to jumpstarting infrastructure repair. Many construction projects, from housing to subways, take much longer in the U.S. than elsewhere, and calls to curtail unnecessary delays and red tape have garnered bipartisan support from groups such Common Good. But many opponents of Trump’s plan see this push to cut regulations and oversight as a way to rollback environmental protections.

And, perhaps the most consequential part of any potential infrastructure plan is what types of projects get covered. Trump called for “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land,” a fitting list when taking into account the long ledger of overdue repairs and broken transport systems.

But taken in context of the entire speech, which also talks about ending “the war on beautiful, clean coal,” it could be seen as a missed opportunity to develop infrastructure for the future. Trump’s laundry list is impressive, but taken with his energy policy, it could be seen as 20th century solutions to 21st century problems. Renewable power, high-speed rail, resilient cities, electric vehicles smart grids, and broadband, all key infrastructure for increased competition, didn’t get a mention, though arguably, they, too require needed investment.

As the President noted, “America is a nation of builders.” But, any big plans need funding and direction.

”Trump initially promised a trillion, he’s now up to a trillion-and-a-half,” said Representative Peter DeFazio, of Oregon, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “Yet they have no plan. So, at this point, we’re nowhere.”