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State and local officials brace for long-awaited Trump infrastructure plan

State and local officials brace for long-awaited Trump infrastructure plan
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East MORE is slated to release his long-awaited infrastructure overhaul on Monday, a move state and local officials are anxiously anticipating after years of false starts on proposals to rebuild American public works.

While the administration has promised a bold rebuilding package that will include “at least” $1.5 trillion, it’s not clear where that money will come from. State and local governments, coupled with private investment, are expected to pitch in for much of the bill.

But despite a potentially costly price tag for states and cities, local officials and the organizations that represent them are encouraged to see the prospect of rebuilding on the table, after years of infrastructure needs serving only as a campaign line.

“It doesn’t happen often at all from our experience,” Joung Lee, policy director for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), said of the current conversation surrounding infrastructure, adding that the political agenda tends to focus instead on issues like jobs, healthcare and taxes.

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Lee, whose group represents the state transportation departments, emphasized the states’ roles in financing transit systems and highways, along with their ownership of the interstate systems. 

“States have been very active in terms of making sure that their transportation infrastructure assets are well-maintained and are able to continue investing in them with their share of the resources,” Lee added.

While the president has provided few details on his impending proposal, the federal government is only expected to chip in $200 billion for its infrastructure overhaul, with the hope that state and local governments, as well as private businesses, will make up the shortfall.

“When the rubber hits the road, it’s certainly thin,” Kent Scarrett, the executive director of the Ohio Municipal League, said of the proposed federal contribution.

“But we’re hopeful once projects get identified and the need is maybe examined through a greater degree, that there’ll be a greater contribution. But right now, anything is better than nothing.” 

Democrats argue that amount of federal money won’t be sufficient, citing the federal government’s historic role in rebuilding and advocating for a higher direct federal investment. Trump’s strategy, according to Democrats, would also put the financial burden on states and local governments they argue can’t afford to fund rebuilding projects.

“We desperately need a partner with this administration, with the leadership in Congress, to get the big projects done that are very relevant,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said ahead of the president's State of the Union address. 

"The fact of the matter is, the federal government has to take the central role as it relates to infrastructure," he added.

Like lawmakers in Congress, groups representing local officials are awaiting additional details from the administration. Still, they’re welcoming a blueprint that could bring much-needed help to cash-strapped localities that have long been grappling with the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. 

“Cities are already carrying the burden for the majority of infrastructure projects. They know what their priorities are,” Irma Esparza Diggs, the senior executive and director of federal advocacy at the National League of Cities (NLC), told The Hill.

“They’ve been carrying the load for funding for their infrastructure projects in absence of anything happening nationally.”

Diggs noted the need for “a strong federal, state and local partnership” in any proposal to ensure that cities can maintain their commitment to their communities’ infrastructure needs.

“We don’t want to just leverage our dollars, we want the federal government and need their active participation and that means federal dollars to meet the country’s infrastructure needs as a whole,” she added. 

Fred Wong, a spokesperson for the National Association of Counties (NACo), said infrastructure’s place in the current conversation provides local governments with a sense of acknowledgment for their efforts on public works systems. 

“It’s a recognition of the volume at which county governments own and operate and manage and deliver infrastructure every day on behalf of county residents,” Wong said.

According to NACo, counties own 45 percent of United States’ public roads, which is more than the percentage of roads that cities, states and the federal government each own individually.

Those roads, in addition to transit systems, airports, bridges and other public works, need maintenance and rehabilitation, studies continue to show.

According to a 2017 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the country’s public works received a D + grade overall, a ranking the group says could cost the U.S. gross domestic product $3.9 trillion. U.S. roads earned a D grade in last year's evaluation.  

But officials and industry groups also point out that infrastructure is not simply rehabilitating or constructing new roads and bridges, and that the Trump administration so far seems to be taking a broader approach to its proposal. 

Wong noted that county officials see infrastructure as encompassing maintaining local health centers, jails, sewers and even ports. 

“So those haven’t always been typical of the infrastructure conversation, but that is an opening for a full revamp upgrade of America’s infrastructure.”

Gary, Ind. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson (D) emphasized in an interview with The Hill the need to expand broadband internet access and improve water infrastructure, both of which the administration is expected to address in its rebuilding initiative.

“For us in the city of Gary and so many other municipalities, water infrastructure is extremely important and that’s true both in urban and rural America,” said Wilson, the vice president of the NLC.

To that end, the administration has said its plan will tackle the needs of rural areas, which include water and broadband. A fact sheet distributed during the annual State of the Union address said a quarter of the federal seed money would go toward a pot to invest in rural regions of the country. 

While the specifics remain unclear, local officials appear hopeful that the existence of an infrastructure conversation could bring much needed attention to transportation and other public work deficiencies that require help from the federal government. 

Scarrett, the head of the Ohio Municipal League, said Democratic mayors from The Buckeye State came away encouraged by a recent meeting with Trump at the White House to discuss infrastructure. 

“It could be some window dressing and the Congressional sausage-making process could derail all of these good initiatives, but our people are optimistic that the federal government is in the earnest way acknowledging what we’ve been telling them all along — that these issues are real and they need to be addressed.”