Trump infrastructure package could be stretched too thin


Transportation advocates are growing worried that President Trump’s infrastructure package may end up getting spread too thin.

The White House has promised a broad-ranging plan that covers areas beyond traditional infrastructure items like roads and bridges, pulling in broadband, energy and veterans hospital goals. Even some universities are pushing to have research labs included in the rebuilding effort.

But with an increasing number of interests fighting for a slice of the pie, some local transportation agencies are questioning whether Trump’s rebuilding proposal will be enough to truly improve the poor condition of much of the nation’s infrastructure. 

“It’s important to acknowledge that all these areas are important for transportation. Research labs, for example, they can help us with breakthroughs in pavement,” said Lee Gibson, executive director of the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) of Washoe County, Nev.

“But where I get concerned is: Are we going to go down a path that ultimately results in so many players at the table that we can’t set a priority and get something done?” 

Trump has long promised to upgrade U.S. roads, bridges, airports and other public works, though he has yet to unveil a formal legislative package.

{mosads}But the White House, which is slated to hold an infrastructure meeting on Wednesday to discuss the broad contours of the proposal, has dropped some hints about what will be included in the plan.

The goal is to use $200 billion in federal funding to create $1 trillion worth of overall infrastructure investment over 10 years, with a focus on public-private partnerships and permit reform.

The administration has also signaled that the plan will be fairly wide in scope, targeting a diverse range of transportation projects throughout the country.

“The proposal will cover more than transportation infrastructure,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said at an agency event earlier this year. “It will include energy, water, and potentially broadband and veterans hospitals as well.” 

Addressing a wide variety of projects in the package is one way to build a broad coalition of support among stakeholders, lawmakers and the public.

The inclusion of broadband, in particular, could help sell rural Republicans on Trump’s infrastructure plan. 

Rural lawmakers have been worried that the private financing model favored by the White House may leave their communities behind, which is why they have been urging the administration to include funding tools that will help improve broadband access, as well as cover others issues that are unique to their regions.

Earlier this year, rural broadband and farm groups sat down with staff members on the National Economic Council to offer suggestions for the package.

“Broadband and several other things are going to be important to get the votes of some rural members who have large rural constituencies,” said Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future. “Then, everybody has a reason to vote for it.”

But a crammed infrastructure package could potentially have some drawbacks for the administration as well.

More and more interests are already competing to be included in the bill. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has defended proposed cuts to the agency by insisting that Trump’s infrastructure package will include some money for housing.

“The part that people are not hearing even though I’ve said it several times is that this administration considers housing a significant part of infrastructure in our country. And as such, the infrastructure bill that’s being worked on has a significant inclusion of housing in it,” Carson said at a conference in Washington earlier this year, according to The Washington Post.

That has amplified concerns among stakeholders that the president’s rebuilding initiative won’t be nearly large enough to make a dent in the nation’s backlog of infrastructure needs.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ in its latest report card, estimates that the country will fall short of its infrastructure needs by $2 trillion if current spending levels continue from now until 2025. The report touches on core infrastructure categories such as roads, bridges, rails, waterways and ports.

Transportation advocates also point out that current funding for the Highway Trust Fund, which finances road construction projects throughout the country, is set to expire in 2020, further underscoring the need for massive investments in traditional infrastructure needs.

“$200 billion in actual funding is not a lot of money spread out over 10 years. $20 billion a year across all those elements of infrastructure doesn’t necessarily mean there would be a lot for transportation,” said Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

“A big tent invites more people to the party … but the more it is spread out across other elements that are not traditional infrastructure, the less there will be for those that are truly in need.” 

Former President Barack Obama faced similar criticism for his economic stimulus package, which funneled about $100 billion of its $800 billion price tag toward infrastructure investment, including transportation, public lands, government buildings and energy infrastructure.

“There was concern that Obama’s Recovery Act was spread too thin,” said Darrell Johnson, CEO of the Orange County Transportation Authority. “If you try to solve everything at once, you’re not focused on any one thing.”

Tags Barack Obama Ben Carson Elaine Chao

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