Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The President’s first State of the Union address glossed over much-anticipated details. But cities and states already know what to expect.
Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address was an attempt to build bridges.
Actual bridges, like the 56,000 spans labeled as “structurally deficient” across the United States. And political bridges—agenda items designed to appeal to both sides of the political aisle, infrastructure among them.
“We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land,” he said. “And we will do it with American heart, American hands, and American grit.”
Whether Trump can bridge gaping divides on the ground, in the economy, and in Washington, D.C. is another question. The president did not provide many details on what a $1.5 trillion infrastructure investment might look like, beyond calling for support from private investors, cities, and states. But a White House briefing, coupled with a leaked document published by Axios last week, offer some hints. They do not resemble olive branches.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the U.S. faces a funding shortfall of at least $2 trillion to bring infrastructure into an “adequate” state of repair. The country places tenth in the world in terms of quality of overall infrastructure, according to the World Economic Forum.
After promising to deliver a $1 trillion infrastructure plan for more than a year, the President dwelled more in his address on plans to reduce medication costs, crack down on national security, and reform immigration to limit undocumented passages. “Trump has spent more time talking about MS-13 gangs than he did about infrastructure,” observed the journalist Jim Roberts on Twitter.
The president did describe in broad strokes a plan to “reclaim” the country’s “building heritage.” He called on Congress to produce a plan that generates “at least $1.5 trillion” in infrastructure spending. Without specifying how much funding the federal government would offer, Trump stated that each federal dollar should be “leveraged” by state and local governments, and “where appropriate,” private investments. This plan would “permanently fix the infrastructure deficit,” he said. “And we can do it.”
The president also stressed a desire to see speedier planning for federally-funded construction projects. “Any bill must also streamline the permitting and approval process, getting it down to no more than two years, and perhaps even one,” he said.
Infrastructure has historically been an issue left and right can work together on. Most Americans have been able to agree that the solution to pockmarked roads, undone train tracks, and toxin-seeping water systems is to pay to fix them. They still do: According to a 2017 poll, nearly three-quarters of Americans would pay higher taxes for better roads.
A White House briefing released on Tuesday describes a $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan in which half of the federal funds—which are unspecified in quantity—would go towards “incentivizing” state and local infrastructure investments. Another quarter of the federal funds would go towards rebuilding roads, water systems, broadband connections, and power lines in rural communities. Some remaining funds would be used to develop “transformative” infrastructure projects.
These plans map closely to the leaked Axios document, which offered a few more details on how those investments would be made. The specifics of the Trump infrastructure package, insofar as they are available, make broad-based support seem pretty untenable.
According to that document, the “Infrastructure Incentive Initiative” proposal would award grants based on the ability of recipients to pay a whopping 80 percent of the project’s funding, whether through road tolls or other user fees or by raising taxes. This is a far cry from how federal highway funds are currently outlayed—those road projects require only a 20-percent local match.
Local leaders are eager for a funding scheme that transfers money directly from federal coffers to trails, transit, and water systems. After the speech, engineering firms and transportation technology companies applauded the president for gesturing towards an infrastructure plan.
But mayors, governors, and infrastructure experts have harshly criticized the idea of a grant program that would reward only the richest players. “There’s going to be many jurisdictions across the country that are desperately in need of infrastructure repair and new infrastructure that have difficulty coming up with the 20 percent match, much less the 80 percent match,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler at a U.S. Conference of Mayors’ meeting last week.
On Twitter Tuesday night, critics seized on Trump’s language to “leverage” local governments and the private sector to pan the proposal as a “scam.”
Faster permitting and regulations may be a boon in some respects. But advocacy groups and policy experts are concerned that rolling back regulations could dangerously weaken clean air and water enforcement standards. “One need only harken back to the Flint water crisis to have concerns about environmental oversight and safety standards with respect to water quality, oversight and monitoring, material construction, and contamination issues,” said David M. Van Slyke, the dean of Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
Furthermore, the administration has proposed no new funding to support the grant program. At the same USCM meeting, White House infrastructure advisor DJ Gribbin said that money could come from funding cuts to Amtrak and transit programs. The leaked document proposes generating funds for infrastructure by selling off federal assets and from energy development and mineral extraction on federal land.
If Gribbin’s word holds true, that would mean states and cities lose federal funding before potentially getting it back. If the leaked proposal is correct, it could be an even worse deal. Say the federal government leases new lands in Nevada for gas or mineral extraction, or it sells off its hydropower plants in the Pacific Northwest. If they’re cash-rich enough to play ball, states and cities could get some of the cash back through an infrastructure grant.
On top of that, imagine how bad the optics would be for projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions and pollution, such as L.A. or Seattle’s transit expansions. Local leaders would potentially be forced to ask for federal funds generated by environmentally harmful sales—a net loss in so many ways, and mind-bogglingly bad politics for many states. Imagine asking to fund your city’s new electric bus fleet with fracking profits.
Attracting bipartisan support in Congress, as well as from mayors and other local leaders, was always going to be a tough row to hoe. Sixty-one percent of Americans believe Trump has done more to divide the country than to unite it, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. A group of high-flying local leaders skipped a recent White House meeting with the president, which was supposed to be about infrastructure, after the administration threatened to subpoena 23 cities, counties, and states over their “sanctuary city” immigration policies.
Regardless, the idea of an infrastructure plan that proposes no new funding is likely to be a non-starter in Congress. “It is such a reversal of where we typically stand,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. “You won’t find someone on Capitol Hill over the last 20 years who doesn’t believe we shouldn’t directly fund the investments we make at a federal level.” He suspects that any new infrastructure bill that moves through Congress will be built from scratch.
Throughout the speech, Trump evoked the idea of America as a “nation of builders.” He called on an architectural icon of his home city, New York, as an example of a prouder construction past, in comparison to what gets built today. “We built the Empire State Building in just one year,” he remarked. “Is it not a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?”
On Twitter, observers were quick to point out that immigrants built the Empire State Building, and that it was erected in a race to build the world’s tallest building. Five people died.