People get ready to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's recently unveiled infrastructure plan outside of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
People get ready to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's recently unveiled infrastructure plan outside of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. Leah Millis/Reuters

Between cuts to Fast Starts, Amtrak, and the Highway Trust Fund, infrastructure spending is in for a $40 to $75 billion net reduction over the next decade.

Talking out of both sides of the mouth: That’s the best way to think about President Trump’s infrastructure policy.

In its infrastructure bill released on Monday, the White House proposed spending $200 billion in federal funds on a grab-bag of programs. But in its fiscal year 2019 budget request, which was also released on Monday, Team Trump lays out a remarkably austere path for roads, bridges, and especially transit systems, with as much as $275 billion in cuts to infrastructure programs.

First, the infrastructure bill, a nearly fabled piece of legislation, after more than a year of blustery speeches, trillion-dollar promises, and ceremonious pledge-signing by the president. (“I've been waiting so long for this day,” tweeted Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation.) As I reported, “Rebuilding Infrastructure in America” proposes taking some federal funds—$200 billion—and, over the next ten years, portioning out half of that amount in “infrastructure incentive” grants to states and localities that can show they have the means to pay for 80 percent of their project costs. That’s a big shift of the funding burden: federally funded road projects usually 80/20 federal-local match percent, while transit projects usually pay 50 percent.

The rest of the funds would also be used as block grants for rural areas, “innovative” infrastructure projects, and to stock a couple of federal funds. The idea is to leverage the $200 billion to stimulate a total of $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending, the vast majority public and private investments.

As CityLab has previously reported, such a policy could be pretty distressing for fiscally strained cities and states around the country, which are struggling to scrape together tax dollars for basic services as it is. But it could theoretically benefit metros like Los Angeles or Seattle, which both passed huge sales tax increases in 2016 to generate billions of local dollars for transit. In fact, as the Los Angeles Times reported, Measure M—L.A. County’s transit ballot measure—was singled out by an unnamed White House official as a model for other cities. “When we’re thinking of revenues at the state and local level… a good case study would be Measure M in Los Angeles,” the source said, noting that the voter-backed measure was “the ultimate sustainable source of revenue for projects.”

But here’s the rub: L.A.’s transit buildout is already in line for a considerable sum of federal funding—which would be cut by the 2019 budget.

The White House proposes eliminating the “Fast Starts” program, which has already promised a total $19.5 billion in transit funding to localities around the country through 2028. That would leave projects in L.A., as well as New York City, Seattle, Phoenix, San Jose, St. Paul, and a slew of other metros up in the air.  

The Fast Starts cut is one of many to infrastructure. Based on the most recent Congressional Budget Office numbers, an analysis by Kevin DeGood, the director of infrastructure policy at the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress shows that the budget’s reduction of outlays to the Highway Trust Fund—the primary source of state transportation funding, which has long danced on the edge of insolvency—would result in a cut of at least $164 billion through 2028.

Consider, again, what that means for a state like California. At best, it could get $10 billion in incentive grants, according to DeGood, since no one state can get more than 10 percent of the program’s total funding amount. But the state also stands to lose $17.9 billion over the next decades from the cuts to the Trust Fund. “So it’s a fiscal two-by-four to the face all around,” DeGood wrote in an email.

The budget blueprint also includes $7.6 billion cut from Amtrak, $14 billion from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and $4.5 billion from the FAA, according to CAP. Outside of transportation, still more infrastructure blows: $30 billion from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program, $9.5 billion from HOME, a block grant program for affordable housing projects, $5.1 billion from rural water and wastewater projects, and $2.5 billion from the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Authority.

According to CAP’s calculations, this totals $275.7 billion in cuts to infrastructure programs and revenue sources over the next ten years. A more conservative analysis by the office of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer identified a sum not too far off: more than $240 billion in proposed budget cuts over the next decade. And a study released last week by the University of Pennsylvania, which also added up and modeled federal infrastructure spending based on Trump’s plans, projected a net reduction of $55 billion over 10 years.

So when you read the words “$1.5 trillion infrastructure plan,” remember two things: 1) no one in the White House has ever suggested actually spending that much money, and 2) if the White House has its way, the federal government will spend somewhere between $40 to $75 billion less on roads, trains, airports, bridges, water and sewer systems, and affordable housing projects than it currently does. Maybe we should stop calling it a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan.

Both proposals to Congress aren’t exactly landing smoothly. Democrats have already blasted them, and many of the budget cuts the White House suggests this year are the same ones that failed to pass muster last year, in the Republican-controlled Congress.

It’s possible that President Trump also realizes just how dead-on-arrival the infrastructure plan, in particular, is likely to be. “If for any reason, they don’t want to support to it, hey, that’s going to be up to them,” he told state and local officials at a White House meeting on Monday. “What was very important to me was the military, what was very important to me was the tax cuts, and what was very important to me was regulation.” Curiously, in the State of the Union address just two weeks ago, the President seemed to suggest the opposite.

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