Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. 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.
But what is there might worry cash-strapped U.S. cities.
No numbers, no funding sources, no percentage matches: That’s what’s not in a leaked document that spells out the White House’s infrastructure plans, if a headline (and the document itself) published by Axios on Monday is to be believed.
President Trump has been promising a $1 trillion infrastructure plan to rebuild the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, and water pipes since well before he was elected. A year into office, his administration still has not delivered, but that may soon change: The latest report is that the White House plans on releasing a proposal after the State of the Union address this month.
In the meantime, we have this leaked draft: neither final nor certain. It may have come from a lobbyist, not the White House—Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, and David Shepardson, a Reuters reporter, both tweeted that the document’s metadata reveal its author to be a member of a D.C. lobbying firm. The White House has kept mum: “We are not going to comment on the contents of a leaked document but look forward to presenting our plan in the near future,” a White House spokeswoman told Axios.
Despite its murky provenance, the document’s contents appear to be in step with ideas the White House has described in private meetings with infrastructure experts. “Everything looks exactly like what we and others were briefed on,” Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, said via email. The document describes what are essentially three federal funding programs, without attaching any dollar figure to them.
First and largest is the “Infrastructure Incentives Initiative.” This program would use 50 percent of the unstated total funding amount to encourage “state, local and private investment in core infrastructure by providing incentives in the form of grants.”
Eligible projects include surface transportation, airports, passenger rail, drinking water systems, hydropower projects, and a range of other types. The federal share of the total cost of qualifying projects would be limited to 20 percent, a dramatic decline from the 40 percent the government currently pays on average for transportation and water infrastructure build-outs, according to the Congressional Budget Office. As transportation consultant and researcher Yonah Freemark noted on Twitter, urban transit projects often receive even more—upwards of 50 percent—from the feds.
Second is the “Transformative Projects Program,” which would use 10 percent of the total outlay to support “exploratory and ground-breaking ideas” in transportation, water, energy, telecommunications, and commercial space. Federal dollars could be used for as much as 80 percent of capital construction costs. Perhaps Elon Musk’s famous “verbal approval” for building a Hyperloop along the northeast corridor wasn’t such a joke after all.
Next is the Rural Infrastructure Program, which would divert 25 percent of the funds to transportation, water, energy and broadband projects serving far-flung communities that need federal subsidies to get built.
Other parts of the document call to beef up federal credit lending programs, to set up a revolving fund for federal land purchases, and to establish an executive authority allowing the “disposal of Federal assets” to pay for new infrastructure, which might mean selling off public lands. The proposal also emphasizes the use of private activity bonds, which provide tax incentives for private investors involved in public projects.
Beyond the lack of dollar figures or specific funding sources, there is more left unsaid. The leaked proposal “does not clarify how the package will achieve $1 trillion in new investment, particularly in light of proposed budget cuts to infrastructure programs,” said Scott Goldstein, the policy director of Transportation For America. The White House’s draft budget proposed cuts to the Department of Transportation and the Highway Trust Fund, the beleaguered primary source of funding for transportation projects. Furthermore, noted Goldstein, the White House has not signaled any plans for maintaining and fixing the decaying roads, water pipes, and energy systems that are already here.
But for cities, the most concerning element of the draft is the criteria described for “Infrastructure Incentives” grants. Some 70 percent of a project’s qualifications would be weighted on “evidence supporting how applicant will secure and commit new, non-federal revenue” for planning, construction, maintenance, and operations.
In other words, the ability of a state or city to demonstrate they already have money to build something is what counts most—more than the type of project, how it is planned, or even its projected economic or social benefits. “The initial conclusion we can take from this proposal is that [the] administration’s priority is in projects that can largely be funded with user fees, not on creating infrastructure for the public benefit,” tweeted Freemark.
Furthermore, this approach could shift urban planning powers to the federal government, to an extent, by pressuring cities to prioritize new infrastructure projects over other uses of tax dollars. Major metros like Los Angeles and Seattle, which passed huge transit-building sales tax measures, might benefit. But many slow-growing mid-sized cities are still struggling to stay in the black as it is. These places may lack the appetite to raise additional taxes for infrastructure revenue, especially with the recent sea change in federal tax law. “This comes at an awkward time for states that are still trying to figure out how to respond to [those] changes,” Tracy Gordon, a senior fellow with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said via email. While some states might see a windfall, others are in for new burdens.
Assuming this draft is the real deal, the next question, Tomer said, “is whether [the administration] pivots a bit based on any reactions, or this is all so baked that they simply release a similar or longer version.” Infrastructure has been heralded as the last hope for bipartisanship in Congress, but politicians on both sides are still smarting from the latest shutdown showdown. Whatever the White House finally releases on infrastructure is a long-delayed starting point, with no certain outcome.