Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
Trump claims to be one of the best “builders” in the U.S.—but there’s a lot he doesn’t seem to understand about urban planning.
Buried underneath a slew of contentious policy proposals—including deporting all undocumented immigrants and banning Muslims from entering the U.S.—is a remarkably sound plank of Donald Trump’s campaign: infrastructure reform. In his latest book, the sloppily written and problematically titled Crippled America, Trump argues that “fixing the country’s infrastructure would be a major priority project” during his potential presidency. “When you talk about building,” he writes, “you had better talk about Trump.”
Let’s grant him this wish and consider the two together. What exactly are Trump’s views on building better cities and improving infrastructure in the U.S.? And how do they stack up against commonly held best practices in urban planning?
While Trump is right to identify that infrastructure is deteriorating in many areas of the U.S., his data and theories miss some major marks. Here are a few confounding infrastructure myths espoused by The Donald:
61 percent of U.S. bridges are “in trouble”
No matter how you spin it, this statistic is just plain wrong. In 2014, the Federal Highway Administration identified 61,365 bridges as “structurally deficient,” meaning that they’re in need of significant maintenance or repair. With 610,749 total bridges in the U.S., that means that about 10 percent of the nation’s bridges are actually “in trouble.”
Even being generous and including the 84,525 bridges that are considered “functionally obsolete” and do not meet current design standards, the new figure still only works out to about 24 percent. What’s more, according to Norman Anderson, the CEO of CG/LA Infrastructure, a strategy firm based in Washington, D.C., some of these run-down bridges are no longer necessary to maintain. “A lot of those bridges you don’t need [to continue operating],” Anderson tells CityLab, citing the thousands of structurally deficient bridges in Pennsylvania as an example.
Most presidential hopefuls mix up their facts at one point or another, but Trump has inflated this bridge statistic on two separate occasions: Once at an August 25 press conference in Iowa (where he declared that 59 percent of bridges were in trouble) and again at an October 14 rally in Richmond, Virginia.
Asbestos is an ideal building material
During the mid-1900s, asbestos was a popular material for building and manufacturing because it was cheap, flexible, and fire-resistant. But by the 1970s, it became hard to ignore the scientific evidence that asbestos was, in fact, linked to various diseases like lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Decades after this evidence surfaced, Trump wrote his 1997 book The Art of the Comeback that asbestos was “the greatest fire-proofing material ever used,” and went so far as to suggest that “the movement against asbestos was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal.” In 2012, Trump even argued via Twitter that asbestos could have preserved the World Trade Center during the September 11 terrorist attacks:
If we didn't remove incredibly powerful fire retardant asbestos [and] replace it with junk that doesn't work, the World Trade Center would never have burned down.
Whatever its fire-resistant properties, exposure to asbestos is still responsible for somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 deaths each year in the U.S. More troubling still is the fact that the U.S. government continues to ignore the extent of asbestos-related health risks. Although the EPA tried to ban most asbestos-containing products back in 1989, the majority of this ban was overturned in 1991. Based on Trump’s past statements, the chances of securing a comprehensive ban during his potential presidency seems unlikely.
The U.S. can build a border wall
Back in March, my colleague Kriston Capps thoroughly dissected Trump’s plan to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border. The major concerns, while perhaps obvious, are worth looking at closely: For one, building a wall as sprawling as the one Trump has proposed (between 30 and 80 feet high and spanning roughly 2,000 miles) would likely cost the U.S. somewhere around $25 billion to build and $750 million a year to maintain, according to various experts.
Even if Trump convinced Mexico to recant its vow not to fund the project, there are a number of ethical limitations: Trump’s proposal may very well violate the code of ethics for many design associations across the U.S., in addition to the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. “As with other controversial border projects, firms that built this wall could be subject to boycotts, blacklists, and lawsuits,” Capps writes. In short, “no one who can build it would, and no one who would build it can.”
U.S. roads can be built for a third of the current cost
In his presidential-bid announcement, Trump promised that he would rebuild America’s infrastructure “on time, on budget, [and] way below cost.” “I look at the roads being built all over the country,” he said, “and I say I can build those things for one-third.”
While “one-third” is likely a cursory
The U.S. is doing nothing to fix its crumbling infrastructure
Again in Crippled America, Trump argues that “our airports, bridges, water tunnels, power grids, rail systems—our nation’s entire infrastructure is crumbling, and we aren’t doing anything about it.” In fact, the U.S. spent $416 billion on infrastructure in 2014 alone. And just last year, Congress passed the largest transportation package in over a decade.
At a December GOP debate, Trump hinted at how much he thinks the government should be shelling out:
In my opinion, we've spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people. If we could've spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems—our airports and all of the other problems we've had—we would've been a lot better off.
Although $4 trillion may sound excessive compared the more conservative infrastructure plans of both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, Anderson says this number is close to his own estimate for four-year infrastructure spending. Where Trump seems to go wrong is by placing the onus on the federal government—even if he plans to cut spending elsewhere.
“There’s a lot of different places where you can get additional funding for infrastructure that has nothing to do with raising taxes, but really has a lot to do with optimizing and increasing the public sector’s oversight and strategic role,” Anderson says. In an interview with U.S. News, Robert Puentes, the director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, makes a similar argument:
I think because we generalize the conversation around infrastructure, we tend to overemphasize what the federal government should be doing and the federal role. In reality, the federal government has a big regulatory role in a lot of ways. But when it comes to overall spending and impact, it's relatively small. … We've seen what happens when you have the federal government directing a lot of these projects. It doesn't always work.
The real problem isn’t that America is doing nothing to fix its infrastructure; it’s that it’s not spending wisely. Instead of floating large sums around, Trump should be focused on strategic spending that involves key players from both the private and public sectors—an important nuance that often evades
Nothing stimulates the economy more than construction
Yet another problem with Trump’s somewhat nebulous infrastructure plan is the philosophy behind it. In Crippled America, he argues that “there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that stimulates the economy better than construction.” Recent data from the U.S. Department of Commerce suggests that this is not currently the case. According to their calculations, professional, scientific, and technical services were the largest contributors to economic growth in 2014. During this time, the industry grew a total of 4.2 percent and contributed .29 percentage points to U.S. GDP growth. Meanwhile, real estate only grew by 1.5 percent (a decline from the previous year) and contributed .20 percentage points to GDP growth.
Still, Trump does have a point, at least on this matter. “What I call strategic infrastructure investment is actually the only way that we restart and re-found our economic prosperity,” Anderson says. The problem, he argues, is that stimulating the economy is difficult to achieve with “non-transformational” projects that don’t involve technology or innovation.
Indeed, as CityLab’s Richard Florida points out, not all construction leads to economic growth; the type of construction and the spatial distribution of our cities and suburbs matter as well. “The ultimate [economic] goal,” Florida writes, “is to achieve the kind of density and mix of building heights that have long fueled urban creativity and powered innovation.” If Trump’s past construction projects are any indication, this kind of thoughtful and innovative planning often escapes his consideration.
When it comes to buildings, the bigger the better
Whether it’s the height of his buildings or the size of his eponymous logo emblazoned on construction signs and city skylines alike, Trump is a fan of the grandiose. Unfortunately, much of his “bigger is better” philosophy seems to serve to boost his ego rather than improve local communities.
The sight of Trump’s name, stretching nearly 2,900 square feet in giant stainless steel, on his Chicago tower sparked a fervent backlash from residents and city officials. Mayor Rahm Emanuel referred to it as “architecturally tasteless.” And in an article for The Chicago Tribune, writer Eric Scott expressed even greater concern:
If Trump's rather un-presidential remark about Mexican-Americans and people from Mexico is considered a hate crime, then shouldn't the T-R-U-M-P sign be considered a symbol of hate and ordered to be taken down?
Trump had a different opinion, telling The Chicago Tribune that, “as time passes, it'll be like the Hollywood sign.”
The temptation to endow a Trump architecture project with landmark status is painfully familiar. “You could subscribe to the theory that towers like [the Trump World Tower in New York] are the Empire State Buildings of the 21st century,” Joshua Stein, a commercial real estate lawyer, told The New York Times back in 2013.
But even if these towers have assumed some sort of cultural significance, their sheer size comes at a long-term financial and aesthetic cost. According to The New York Times, in order to build his 72-story-high Trump World Tower, Trump hoarded air rights from seven low-rise properties nearby. This permitted his tower to take up all of the allowable density for the entire block, according to The Times, thereby preventing additional construction (which, Trump would argue, is America’s greatest economic stimulus).
While it’s difficult to predict what kind of infrastructure reform Trump would actually implement in office, one thing is clear: In speech and in action, Trump champions a number of fallacies about how our cities can and should work.