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Infrastructure spending was supposed to be a priority for Trump — and for Democrats. So why has it become an afterthought in Washington?

Once a top-line priority, infrastructure plans have fallen rapidly down the to-do list. What does that mean for Minnesota?

President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on transportation was one of the few post-election developments cheered by Democrats.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Donald Trump likes to build things. So it wasn’t surprising that Trump, on the campaign trail, frequently lamented the state of America’s roads, highways, bridges, and airports, promising to repair them and build bigger and better infrastructure as president.

His talk of putting millions to work in modernizing the country’s transit infrastructure was a big part of his unorthodox appeal, and helped boost his credibility with the blue-collar voters he won overwhelmingly on election day.

Since then, however, Trump’s presidency has been mired in missteps and staff intrigue. On Capitol Hill, the Republican majority is swamped, focusing all their energies on a plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, all while trying to push through Trump’s Cabinet picks past a recalcitrant Democratic minority.

Far from being a top-line priority, infrastructure plans have fallen rapidly down the Washington to-do list. So what happened to those big dreams, and what does it mean for Minnesota?

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‘It’s going to be big’

Hours after winning the election, Trump moved quickly to set infrastructure at the top of his domestic agenda, a first-100-days kind of priority to make good on his campaign promises.

In his victory speech, his first declaration on the economy was that he’d “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, and airports … and we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

During the transition, Trump’s team continued to make big promises on infrastructure. Two days before inauguration, Vice President Mike Pence appeared before the meeting of the National Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. He told the country’s municipal leaders that Trump told him to let them know “we’re going to do an infrastructure bill — and it’s going to be big.”

How big? $1 trillion kind of big.

Wilbur Ross, now the nominee for secretary of commerce, and Peter Navarro, now a White House economic adviser, laid out an infrastructure plan during the campaign. They suggested that $137 billion in tax credits to private investors on infrastructure projects could be leveraged to create $1 trillion in infrastructure spending.

The nitty-gritty notwithstanding, Trump’s rhetoric on transportation was one of the few post-election developments cheered by Democrats. During the campaign, Trump’s promises to spend big on major projects brought independents into his fold, while spooking fiscal conservatives.

Democrats thought they could work directly with Trump on infrastructure, bypassing the majority of the GOP conferences in the House and Senate to provide sufficient votes for an ambitious legislative package — one that’d look like it came from a Democratic president.

Congressional Democrats went as far as to introduce their own $1 trillion package, and challenged Trump to back it. It proposed increasing Obama-era grant money and establishing a $10 billion “infrastructure bank” to pay for future projects.

Few details surface on infrastructure package

Since Trump swore the oath of office on Jan. 20, though, it’s been mostly crickets on roads, bridges, and tunnels from the White House and Congress.

By the end of January, just weeks into Trump’s presidency, Politico was reporting that hopes had dimmed for a sweeping infrastructure package.

In a Feb. 16 meeting at the White House, Trump promised the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair, Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, “We’re going to give you some money for transportation.”

Rep. Rick Nolan

MinnPost photo by Sam Brodey
Rep. Rick Nolan

This raised eyebrows among those familiar with the functions of the various branches of government: “He just doesn’t get it,” Rep. Rick Nolan said in response to Trump’s declaration.

Virtually no details have surfaced about what the infrastructure bill might look like, or even when it might be taken up. It’s been hung up for a number of reasons: GOP leadership, of course, is under far greater pressure to tackle Obamacare and tax reform than they are to push an infrastructure package they may not want as badly as Trump does.

Still, despite Congress’ packed schedule, Nolan — Minnesota’s Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — said he was surprised that details have trickled out so slowly.

“Judging from the campaign you’d have thought it would have been first and foremost,” Nolan told MinnPost. “He campaigned so vigorously on trade and infrastructure, and the potential it had for creating good-paying jobs and laying the infrastructure for business and more jobs. We have not heard from him yet on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on which I serve.”

Freshman Rep. Jason Lewis, Minnesota’s Republican on the transportation panel, said committee talks are in the “formative stages.”

“Some folks on the right and the left don’t realize it takes time to do some of this stuff,” he said. “The idea you’d do that in 60, 70, even 100 days is not realistic to begin with. No one knows the size of the bill yet, but we have to figure out where to pay for it.”

Minnesota transit wish list

To Minnesota transportation experts, uncertainty and foot-dragging out of Washington is hardly new. They recalled that in 2015, Congress passed the FAST Act — which authorized over $300 billion of spending on surface transportation infrastructure through 2020, $8 billion of that for Minnesota — but only after much negotiation and wrangling.

To them, Trump’s wish to dramatically improve not just highways, roads, and bridges, but airports and railroads too, is going to take time, and patience from stakeholders, before it’s realized.

John Ongaro

John Ongaro

John Ongaro, director of intergovernmental relations with St. Louis County, said the “stars are aligned perfectly” for a national infrastructure bill but, “when it comes to Washington, things drag on longer,” he laughs, “there’s no shock value there.”

Margaret Donahoe, president of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a St. Paul transit advocacy group, said she’s “not personally terribly surprised that there hasn’t been more movement” on the issue so far in D.C.

“No one seems to know for sure what [Trump] was proposing,” she added. “It hasn’t been well defended or well thought out. Now that the new administration is here, it’s going to take some time to really think through what exactly it is they want to propose.”

In Minnesota, experts have a good idea of what infrastructure needs could be best met with federal money. And they could use it soon: The Minnesota Department of Transportation, in its 20-year plan released recently, found an $18 billion gap between revenue and the state’s needs for highway spending alone.

In the metro area, the so-called Gateway Corridor project — a nine-mile rapid bus line that would connect east metro communities with downtown St. Paul — is high on the priority list. In the west metro, a $30 million project to add an interchange between I-94 and Brockton Lane near Maple Grove is on the list, too. (The controversial Southwest LRT project, though it has struggled to get support in the statehouse, has federal money behind it that is not expected to be withdrawn.)

Transit advocates also want to continue upgrading I-94 between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud: the next phase is a $50 million project to improve the highway between St. Michael and Albertville.

There are big-ticket items, too, that some believe could get a jump-start from a big transit package out of D.C. The Northern Lights Express is a proposed high-speed rail connection between the Twin Cities and Duluth, estimated to cost up to $600 million. Ongaro, a backer of the project, says it’s shovel ready and would bring the kind of jobs to rural America that Trump promised.

There’s no indication, however, that the Trump administration believes any of these projects are priorities. The transition team released a list of 50 infrastructure projects nationwide that are the leading candidates for funding: None is in Minnesota.

Don’t count on Washington?

Whenever Washington does finally get to tackling transit, there’s a long list of daunting details they’ll have to work through.

Figuring out how to pay for $1 trillion of infrastructure, of course, is where ambitious transit ideas fall apart. Republicans believe some kind of public-private partnership could pay for a significant chunk of any infrastructure package. (Donahoe is not the only person skeptical of how effective that strategy might be: “The reality is,” she said, “we haven’t seen a lot of interest from private investors to invest in Minnesota.”)

Beyond that, transportation has a tenuous place within the GOP’s overall fiscal agenda: Republicans want to cut taxes across the board, and though they are pursuing some spending cuts, they are also looking to boost military spending. That spending equation could make the political climate even more treacherous for an ambitious, and expensive, transit bill.

Rep. Jason Lewis

MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Rep. Jason Lewis

Some revenue streams are on the table: Republicans generally back the expansion of toll roads, and other ways of raising revenue that target those who most heavily use, and benefit from, infrastructure.

Lewis said he’s open to a variety of these so-called user fees. “If you’re going to finance something some sector of the economy and folks are going to use, ideally, you’d match that up so that the people who use it pay for it,” he said. “That is precisely how we ought to raise money from the government.”

Democrats agree, but they believe raising the federal tax on gasoline is a necessary part of that. The gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, and many Democrats believe that even slightly raising it could go a long way toward financing infrastructure.

Nolan, for example, outlined a plan that includes a 1.5-cent increase in the gas tax, which would be used to pay off $500 billion in bonds over a period of time.

“The system is rapidly deteriorating,” Nolan said. “We need to invest in it with public money, not that public-private partnerships aren’t OK, but we can’t fix our bridge problem with 3,000 toll bridges and selling off our highways.”

Congress will eventually get to these debates: Lewis says his guess is that, by the end of the year, more specific details will emerge about the infrastructure plan.

The pressure is squarely on Trump to move the ball forward on infrastructure, says St. Louis County’s Ongaro, especially with so many jobs on the line.

“Let’s face it,” he explains, “the way he won, he convinced enough of rural America that he was going to bring back jobs and he was going to improve the economy in rural America. He’s gotta deliver on that if he’s at all serious about running for re-election.”

Others, such as Donahoe, are not holding their breath. “It remains to be seen just how much Trump will push for this,” she said.

She’s talked to some state legislators who believe Trump will deliver on transit and take the heat off them to fund key projects in Minnesota — and has tried to persuade them otherwise.

“Our message to the legislature and the governor is,” she said, “don’t rely on Trump to bail us out.”