The long-promised Trump plan to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges and other public works could finally be released in the next few weeks — the president is expected to tout his program in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, and more details may come in February.
But President Donald Trump’s plan could act like a derailed train and go nowhere fast because of funding questions. Everyone likes better roads and water systems, but many Republicans will balk if a gas tax hike is needed to pay for it, and Democrats have expressed doubts about what they see as its over-reliance on local government and private dollars.
“When they built the Hoover Dam, they didn’t say, ‘Let the states do it,’ ” said Democratic Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley in an interview. “(President Dwight D.) Eisenhower didn’t say ‘We’re going to build the interstate system and the states will pay for it.’ ”
How to fund the program is the big unanswered question, both on the local and the federal side, noted Frank Manzo, policy director for the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank whose members include representatives from the construction industry.
“The devil is in the details …” said Manzo in an interview. “The actual funding side is going to be very difficult and even more difficult in the wake of a tax reform plan that will result in fewer resources for government spending, let alone infrastructure projects.”
Trump has been promising a $1 trillion infrastructure plan since before his election. He told a gathering of mayors last week that the plan will probably end up being about $1.7 trillion.
A six-page leaked document titled “Funding Principles” circulated around Washington, D.C., last week. While a White House spokesperson would not comment on it, the document’s recommendations are similar to what officials familiar with the plan have already discussed.
The administration is expected to propose that the federal government spend $200 billion over the next 10 years while leveraging the rest of the money for projects from both local governments and the private sector. The leaked infrastructure document specifies that awards cannot exceed 20 percent of the total cost of a project.
This flips the script on how highways are usually built — with 80 percent federal funding and 20 percent local. It would also differ from how other projects are funded — the CTA Red-Purple Line modernization project, for example, is being funded half by federal funds and half by local tax increment finance dollars.
If the CTA wanted to get funding through the program for its proposed $2.3 billion Red Line extension to 130th Street, for example, it would need to count on getting 80 percent of the money from cash-strapped state and local sources.
The Trump plan wants 25 percent of the total appropriation to go to rural infrastructure programs, and requires that no individual state can receive more than 10 percent of the amount available.
Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, who represents north central Illinois, joined in a letter with other representatives urging Trump to include rural broadband investments in the proposal. Fiber-optic cables for internet go underground and underwater.
The plan also is expected to streamline environmental reviews and allow for greater tolling on highways. Right now, states can add toll lanes to an existing road when it is expanded — not on old lanes. In other words, the Illinois Department of Transportation can proceed with plans to toll on newly built I-55 lanes, explained Audrey Wennink, transportation director for the Metropolitan Planning Council. The Trump proposal would allow new tolling on existing lanes.
Funding the plan
The administration has not said where the federal portion of the money would come from, other than unidentified budget cuts. Another possible source is an increase in the federal gas tax, which has been 18.4 cents a gallon since 1994 and finances the Highway Trust Fund. Illinois’ gas tax is 19 cents and has not been raised since 1991.
Trump has indicated a willingness to consider a gas tax hike, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which tends to be a conservative group, has proposed increasing the federal tax by 25 cents a gallon over five years.
The chamber’s proposal would not only fund Trump’s plan but cover a shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, noted transportation expert and former Regional Transportation Authority head Stephen Schlickman. But there are lawmakers in Congress “who will fall on their swords to oppose any tax increase,” Schlickman said.
Republican Illinois Congressman Peter Roskam said in a statement that while there’s a bipartisan national consensus that infrastructure needs to be updated, the solution is not higher gas taxes.
“The Sixth District already has among the greatest number of tollways anywhere in the country so our residents are paying more than most,” said Roskam, who represents the western suburbs.
Illinois Congressman Dan Lipinski, the senior Illinois member on the House transportation committee, said relying on public-private partnerships, also known as PPP, has a limited usefulness.
It can work for toll roads because a private investor can get back his money, but would not work for projects like transit and rural roads, which benefit the people who use them but do not provide a source of income for investors, Lipinski said in an interview.
“I’m skeptical about how much infrastructure can be built with PPP,” said Lipinski, who is considered a conservative Democrat.
Bleeding other programs
Another concern of Democrats is that the administration will find the $200 billion in federal money by taking it out of other infrastructure programs — robbing Peter to pay Paul, when Peter does not have much to begin with.
The office of U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, said if Trump’s proposed cuts to other transportation programs over the next 10 years are added onto the proposed $200 billion in the infrastructure plan, the result is a negative $144.9 billion.
“It’s a bit of a scam,” said Dan Cantor, national chair of the Working Families Party, a progressive Democratic group. “It’s not a real plan to directly invest public money into worthwhile projects that create good jobs. Instead, it will hand over infrastructure to private interests and make believe that’s the cheap way to do it. You pay later with tolls and fees.”
Wennink of the Metropolitan Planning Council said that since the plan relies so much on local government spending, Illinois will need to get ready to do that if it wants to access any of these funds. She said Illinois should raise its gas tax, as a start.
“The challenge is, that’s not necessarily a long-term solution since revenues are going down,” Wennink said. “But we haven’t increased it since 1991, and that’s an obvious one to look at. We also need to look at longer-term solutions as cars get more fuel efficient and there’s more of a shift toward electric vehicles.”
Not everyone is pessimistic about the plan. Ken Simonson, chief economist with the Associated General Contractors of America, said it’s good the president will be urging more funding for infrastructure and it’s up to Congress to find a path its members can accept.
He said his organization has long supported indexing fuel tax rates for inflation and also trying to find other funding sources for road building including the broader use of tolls and legislation to allow states to do more public-private partnerships.
“Putting the challenge out there will rally some support for getting something done,” Simonson said. “Our view is all of the above is great.”
There’s still the question of when the plan’s details will come out — it has been promised for months. Asked if the plan could indeed emerge in February, Mayor Rahm Emanuel quipped, “You’re asking me to guess what this guy’s going to do? You don’t pay me enough for that.”
Transportation song quiz
Last week’s transportation song was about a train that could have been called “The 910,” but the meter would not have scanned. The song is “One After 909″ by The Beatles — it was one of the first Lennon/McCartney compositions. Mark Jarasek of Oak Brook was the first with the answer.
Today’s song is about a California plane crash — the writer invented names for passengers because some media accounts only called them by their legal status. What’s the song and who wrote it? The first with the correct answer gets a Tribune notebook, and glory.