Why Nobody Likes Trump’s Infrastructure Plan

For starters: It would endanger the environment, imperil water systems and other public assets . . . and then make states pay extra for it all

February 16, 2018
Budget Director Mick Mulvaney testifying before the Senate Budget Committee on President Trump's fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, Februrary 13, 2018

Susan Walsh/AP

President Trump released his long-awaited infrastructure plan on Monday morning. By that evening it had been analyzed, scrutinized, picked apart, and fact-checked to a fare-thee-well. And—surprise!—it was found to be woefully insufficient and politically implausible, to boot.

Though it didn’t lack for detail, one thing conspicuously missing from the 55-page document was an explanation of where and how Congress would be getting the money to implement the President’s ideas. Lawmakers reacted with skepticism, which is a hopeful sign. Because were Trump’s infrastructure plan to be turned into action, it would be a bad deal for state and local economies, for public works and public health, and for the environment.

First came the revelation that this much-touted blueprint, advertised by the administration as a $1.5 trillion plan, was really more of a $200 billion plan. That’s how much actual money the federal government would give to states and localities in the form of direct funds, block grants, loans, and other forms of financing meant to spur additional investment. So where would the other $1.3 trillion come from? From cash-strapped local governments and profit-seeking private investors.

It took just a few hours for critics from the left, right, and center to point out the many flaws in this line of thinking and to pronounce the infrastructure plan a nonstarter. With nearly half of the states in the country facing budget shortfalls, raising money for infrastructure, whether through tax increases or spending cuts in other areas, is already difficult.

The Trump plan would make it much, much harder. In fact, it would entirely reverse the polarity of how infrastructure projects are traditionally cofinanced. States and localities currently pay about 50 percent of new mass-transit costs and 20 percent of new highway costs, for instance, with Washington kicking in most of the rest. Under the new plan, their share of total costs would rise to as much as 80 percent.

There’s also concern about whether the Trump plan overstates the value, while understating the dangers, of public-private partnerships for vital infrastructure projects. The problems with these partnerships aren’t always apparent at first, but they typically become so just as soon as investors start demanding to see a return on their money. In Bayonne, New Jersey, for example, one such project to build a municipal water system resulted in newer, better pipes—but also sky-high rates for residents. Many of them legitimately can’t afford to pay as much as $2,000 a year for access to safe drinking water, which ought to be every American’s right.

There’s something in Trump’s plan for nearly everyone to dislike or distrust. And of course this president would never dream of excluding those of us who put the environment at the top of our priorities list. He’s made sure to emphasize that his plan would do away with the necessarily rigorous process of environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects—or, as Trump likes to call them, “inefficiencies.”

For big projects that affect large areas and multiple ecosystems (think of an oil pipeline through an aquifer, for instance), environmental review can take years. Trump’s plan would impose an absurd 21-month deadline for approval of all projects, irrespective of the size or the context. And there are signs that his administration wants to rush things even more dramatically: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has declared that his agency intends to “process every permit, up or down, within six months.”

As my NRDC colleague Becky Hammer recently noted, President Trump might have taken this opportunity to start a national discussion about our country’s dire need for new water infrastructure, a situation that the EPA has estimated will cost more than $660 billion over the next 20 years to remedy. Instead, he’s blaming the Clean Water Act and other essential federal protections for unnecessarily slowing down the construction of gas pipelines.

For all sorts of reasons, many are predicting that President Trump’s plan will never see the light of day. But it’s an important document all the same, providing as it does a glimpse into the administration’s priorities. The president is right that we need to embark on a bold, ambitious, bipartisan program to fix our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. This isn’t it.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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