It’s 2019. Where’s the Infrastructure Fix?

More than two years into his presidency, Donald Trump’s highly touted $1.5 billion infrastructure plan has never materialized. The reason is simple; the dynamics that blocked more infrastructure investment prior to Trump’s inauguration are still in place.

Candidate Trump promised to infuse billions more federal dollars to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, before pulling back and repositioning to be more in line with his party’s stance. And that underscores the first major hurdle – despite bi-partisan consensus on the need to fix our infrastructure, the two major parties disagree on how to pay for it.

Democrats want to increase federal investment, largely through an infrastructure bank that can provide loans and grants for infrastructure projects. This is, more or less, a variation of the existing system, but could also include new or increased taxes.

The Republican platform seeks to eliminate federal funding for projects that aren’t strictly about highways and bridges. Initiatives such as bike-share programs, sidewalk improvements, recreational trails, landscaping, historical renovations, ferry boats, the federal lands access program, scenic byways and education initiatives should not be funded by the Highway Trust Fund, they say. The GOP also tends to favor state investment over federal, and is looking to remove mass transit from the equation as well.

The two sides agree that more public-private partnerships could benefit the rebuilding of our infrastructure, but again disagree on how to encourage it. In either case, the difficulty of relying on public-private partnerships to spur the recovery of highways, bridges and municipal utilities is that private investors need a clear reason to put their money into a government infrastructure project instead of elsewhere. This is often a hard sell.

Trump’s shift to a position more in line with Republicans may be politically beneficial, but it runs contrary to his campaign promise. When Hillary Clinton proposed $275 billion in direct spending on infrastructure over five years, plus another $225 billion in loans and loan-guarantee programs, Trump said, “Her number is a fraction of what we’re talking about. We need much more money to rebuild our infrastructure. I would say at least double her numbers, and you’re going to really need a lot more than that.”

This put him at odds with many conservatives and with his party’s 2016 platform. So he has backtracked. Instead of offering more federal money, Trump’s budgets sought to put more of the burden on states, essentially flipping completely around the 80%-20% federal-state split. It also relied on unspecified spending cuts. Trump’s approach does not allow for deficit spending to achieve infrastructure goals, nor does it mention an increase in the federal gas tax (which has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993).

Trump appears to have made some strides in advancing projects more quickly through the process. Improving on a program initiated by the previous administration, Trump has accelerated the permitting and environmental review process for federal projects. It’s something, but it’s a far cry from a trillion-dollar-plus program that will rebuild America’s infrastructure.—Jerry Guerra

This blog entry is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of Design Consultants, Inc. or its owners.