Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
In his 2021 budget request, President Trump sends mixed messages about federal funding for highways, bridges, and railways. Sound familiar?
President Donald Trump’s 2021 budget request describes a $810 billion, 10-year surface transportation reauthorization bill as part of a proposed $1 trillion infrastructure investment. But the budget also calls for a 13 percent cut to discretionary spending for the U.S. Department of Transportation, the largest infrastructure-building agency in the cabinet.
That, in a nutshell, has been the persistent theme of the Trump administration when it comes to infrastructure: big talk, little action, and plenty of mixed messages in between.
Like many politicians—including the quartet of Democratic presidential candidates who held a first-of-its-kind “infrastructure forum” in Nevada on Sunday—Trump talked up a storm about America’s crumbling infrastructure in his first campaign. “We have bridges that are falling down,” he told Fox News in August 2016. “We have many, many bridges that are in danger of falling.” While his then-rival Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton proposed a $500 billion infrastructure raft, Trump upped the rhetorical ante to $1 trillion a few days before the election. Once he got into office, Democrats in Congress viewed the issue as a rare patch of potential common ground with the ultra-divisive chief executive, and hoped to build something on it.
But no such bridges were built. Although this year’s budget repeats that familiar $1 trillion infrastructure commitment, policy experts don’t expect Trump to stump for it in his 2020 re-election campaign. As it is, the White House has made only half-hearted attempts at turning its road-raising rhetoric into reality. At the same time, Congress has infused highways, airports, and other such programs with extra cash since Trump entered office, but that’s been in spite of the president, not because of him. Here’s a brief guide to what Trump has talked about in his budgets, and where federal dollars have actually gone.
Half-hearted calls for infrastructure investment; big proposed cuts to DOT
The Trump administration has offered a series of skeletal plans and head-scratching flow-charts to prop up the president’s infrastructure talk since he entered office in 2017. Trump’s first proposed budget was paired with a six-page fact sheet loosely envisioning a $200 billion federal outlay designed to spur further state, local, and private investment that would add up to $1 trillion. Trump, however, wasn’t even in the country to announce it.
That spring, a promotional “infrastructure week” tour coincided with the firing of FBI director James Comey; it swiftly went off the rails, as Trump refused to stay on message. Subsequent infrastructure weeks became annual White House traditions, turning the phrase itself into a running joke among politicos and pundits—shorthand for “any substantive—if pie-in-the-sky—policy objective destined to go nowhere,” as the New York Times put it last year.
In his 2018 State of the Union Address, the president revived the call to build “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land,” and the White House budget request that year offered a little more detail about how the $200 billion infrastructure fund would work. By cutting that amount from elsewhere in the budget, the federal government could issue grants directly to states and localities (though on less-generous terms than they generally receive), and provide loans and financing for other types of programs. But this failed to sway a divided Congress, partly because Trump himself cast aspersions on whether his public-private plan could work.
That kind of mixed messaging has been underscored by the White House’s transportation budget requests. Every year that Trump has called for large infrastructure investments, the administration’s annual proposals for discretionary spending have also called for large cuts to DOT spending compared with the previous year.
Adding further confusion, this year Trump used his State of the Union address to urge passage of the American Transportation Infrastructure Act, the Senate’s five-year, $287 billion bill to reauthorize surface transportation spending. But the White House budget that arrived a week later proposed a broader, 10-year, $810 billion reauthorization bill that would be separate from the Senate’s.“There is such a lack of clarity on a collective level about what we do want to achieve,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
Congress has protected DOT, injecting extra cash into transportation
Thanks to Congress, Trump’s big proposed DOT cuts have also failed to become reality. Lawmakers have protected discretionary spending on programs that the White House has wanted to kill, such as passenger rail grants for Amtrak and capital improvement projects for transit. And Congress has stood up to DOT when the agency has tried to hold up promised resources for key transportation projects. Just this week, a $1.3 billion federal grant was finally secured by L.A. Metro for its Purple Line subway project, after the administration held it back for more than a year. “That was not what the White House budget recommended,” said Scott Goldstein.
In fact, discretionary spending on transportation has increased in recent years. In 2018, Congress struck a two-year deal to increase the Budget Control Act spending caps that had been in place since 2013. This gave Congress “extra” pocket cash to the tune of $26 billion in FY 2018 and $31 billion in FY 2019 for non-defense programs, allowing lawmakers to “plus up” highway, airport, and transit grant programs, among other things. But this isn’t really new money; it’s an adjustment for years of austerity.
“The appropriations committee decided that the quickest way to get money into the economy was to fluff up existing programs,” said Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation. The two-year spend-a-palooza also secured a few random federal purchases, such as six new training vessels for the nation’s state-run maritime academies, at $300 million a pop.
The high costs of business as usual
Meanwhile, as the president talks about building bridges and Congress continues funding fresh highways, the planet is burning. Transportation overtook energy generation to become the largest U.S. source of atmosphere-warming greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, and under Trump, America has only become more car-reliant. TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery), a popular Obama-era DOT grant program that supported mass transit expansions and pedestrian-friendly road projects, has turned into a “rural highway building machine,” as my former colleague Andrew Small put it last year. Meanwhile, vehicle-miles traveled are on the rise. Combined with Trump administration efforts (so far stymied) to roll back fuel efficiency regulations, the past three years of feeding America’s voracious driving habits represent yet another blow to the world’s chances of meeting its climate goals.
Of course, it’s possible that the $1 trillion infrastructure package that has yet to manifest would be an even more carbon-intensive road-building bonanza. But if the Senate’s $287 billion transportation reauthorization bill is any indication, Congress’s preference is to maintain the status quo as well. While the American Transportation Infrastructure Act includes $10 billion for climate-focused programs, it still puts the bulk of its funding towards boosting roads and highways. The price of that inaction, paid out in billions of tons of CO2 over the coming years, remains to be seen.