Donald Trump came into the White House pledging to rebuild America and vastly upgrade what he often called a crumbling, decrepit network of roads, bridges, highways, and airports.
An unconventional Republican president like Trump, a self-styled builder himself, might have been well-positioned to advance a comprehensive, high-dollar infrastructure package out of Washington for the first time in years — potentially with the help of scores of eager Democrats.
Over a year into Trump’s presidency, however, the push for a sweeping infrastructure bill — once seen as a plausible Trump-era accomplishment — has stalled, basically before it got a chance to leave the station.
With Republicans’ energy in 2017 fully devoted to repealing Obamacare and passing tax cuts, infrastructure was shunted to the side of the road. In February, the White House finally released long-awaited specifics for its formal infrastructure proposal — only to see its blueprint get widely panned by lawmakers, public officials, and experts in the field.
That doesn’t come as a surprise to public officials and infrastructure advocates back in Minnesota, no strangers to lofty D.C. plans on infrastructure falling flat over the years. But Trump’s focus on the issue — at least rhetorically — combined with bipartisan willingness to cooperate raised hopes that something significant could happen to improve the state’s infrastructure network.
Minnesota has a long infrastructure to-do list, from expanding highways to improving wastewater treatment systems, and it’ll be hard to make progress without increased help from Uncle Sam. Members of Congress, state and local officials, and infrastructure lobbyists are now resigned to a familiar status quo: attempting to get their priorities off the ground through funding avenues that already exist at the federal, state, and local levels — while keeping a hopeful eye on D.C. that something big could happen soon.
The ‘biggest and boldest’ infrastructure deal in 50 years
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ acknowledgement of the state of affairs on infrastructure last week was a final blow to any lingering hopes that Washington might do something by the end of this year.
“I don’t know that there will be one by the end of this year,” Sanders told reporters on May 9 in response to a question on infrastructure legislation. “We’re going to continue to look at ways to improve the nation’s infrastructure, but, in terms of a specific piece of legislation, I’m not aware that that’ll happen by the end of the year.”
Sanders’ admission comes three months after the White House rolled out its infrastructure plan to lots of fanfare — and a year after it looked like the administration was finally getting moving on infrastructure.
In May 2017, the administration released a one-page outline of its infrastructure priorities, which included a call for $1 trillion in investment. White House sources told CNBC that they were aiming to draft legislation by summer of that year.
Instead, it took another nine months for the administration to roll out a proposal outlining specifics on infrastructure — a prelude to any legislation, which, as of now, has yet to come, despite administration officials saying infrastructure would be their top legislative priority this year.
In February 2018, the White House released a 55-page plan that calls for $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investments over the next decade. Officials planned to raise that huge sum by putting up $200 billion in direct federal funding, aiming to use it to generate over $1 trillion in private money through tax credits and other incentives. The plan also aimed to direct tens of billions of dollars to improving rural infrastructure, and called for cutting regulations to expedite key projects.
On Feb. 14, Trump told attendees at a White House meeting that “I have laid out the principles of the biggest and boldest infrastructure initiative in, at least, a half-a-century.”
That reaction was not shared, however, by lawmakers and public officials. There were plenty of skeptics, from across the political spectrum, of the notion that $200 billion in federal dollars could turn into $1 trillion or more with private sector involvement: DFL Rep. Rick Nolan, who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, quipped that such a plan wouldn’t work unless Republicans wanted to “put a tollbooth on every road.”
That the plan shifted so much of the financial burden for infrastructure to the private sector and state and local governments showed the administration wasn’t really that serious about making something happen on infrastructure, said John Ongaro, director of government relations for St. Louis County.
“I was becoming doubtful once I saw the particulars of the plan and this funny financing. I came to the conclusion that this is not going to happen,” he told MinnPost. “It’s very disappointing because it just makes people across the country that much more cynical about Washington. This was something which a lot of people across the country thought made a lot of sense, one of the reasons they voted for President Trump.”
Critics have also noted that the GOP’s push for a huge tax cut took not only time, but money that could have gone to infrastructure. Ongaro noted that the estimated cost of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was $1.5 trillion over 10 years — the sum that the administration is calling for in its infrastructure proposal.
Infrastructure advocates were also hoping that the tax bill’s provisions on taxation of U.S. companies’ overseas profits could fund an ambitions package. A so-called “repatriation” tax of those earnings was widely seen as a viable way to pay for infrastructure, said Margaret Donahoe, of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance.
But the GOP tax bill didn’t link its 15.5 percent repatriation tax — which could raise more than $330 billion over 10 years — specifically to infrastructure funding, as many lawmakers wanted. “At this point, it’s not surprising that this isn’t going to happen this year,” Donahoe said.
Failing grades on infrastructure
The administration’s failure to make progress on ambitious infrastructure legislation comes at a bad time for the U.S.: Around the country, transportation systems — from subways to highways — are in dire need of expansion and repair, while critical infrastructure systems like drinking water and wastewater treatment are under duress, and nearing the end of their life cycles.
The American Society of Civil Engineers, which releases a “report card” every four years assessing the state of U.S. infrastructure, gave the country’s networks an overall grade of D+ in its newly released 2017 report. The report breaks down types of infrastructure, from public parks and ports to bridges and airports. Engineers gave U.S. railways a B, the highest score, but gave public transit a D-.
The ASCE also evaluates individual states, and finds Minnesota ahead of peers in some key infrastructure areas: Though 15 percent of Minnesota’s 140,000 miles of public roads are considered to be in “poor” condition, for example, that’s a lower share than in Iowa or Illinois, where 18 percent of public roads are in poor shape. (In California, half of the state’s public roads are.)
Of Minnesota’s 13,300 bridges, 6 percent are deemed by ASCE to be “structurally deficient,” a lower share than in Wisconsin and Illinois, where roughly 8.5 percent are, or in Iowa, where 20 percent of bridges are deficient.
The report finds Minnesota facing challenges when it comes to water infrastructure: The ASCE estimates that $7.4 billion will be required to meet the state’s drinking water needs over the next two decades, compared to $1 billion in Wisconsin. (Stew Thornley, who works on drinking water issues in the Minnesota Department of Health, said drinking water infrastructure was not a crisis in Minnesota, but said “we have to remain vigilant.”)
The engineers’ report could be just the tip of the iceberg, according to Jerry Zhao, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies how governments fund infrastructure projects. He is currently working on a project that explores how transparent states are in disclosing information about how far behind they are on infrastructure maintenance.
“The information is not even there,” Zhao said. “The country has not even paid sufficient attention to see how much of a problem we have. The gap is big — we don’t know how big it is.”
Help needed from Washington
There are plenty of projects on Minnesota officials’ infrastructure wish list these days. In the Twin Cities metro area, it’s often the light rail projects that get the most attention, like Southwest LRT and the Bottineau Blue Line extension. But both initiatives are in the advanced stages of the federal funding process, and their fates are not tied to whether Congress passes an ambitious infrastructure bill.
Minnesota officials welcomed increased investment from St. Paul during the 2017 legislative session, when lawmakers approved $400 million in funding in 2018 for the so-called “Corridors of Commerce” program, which identified several stretches of road, from I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Cloud to the I-35 and Highway 494 interchange in Bloomington, for improvement.
But the state only has so much money to work with. Minnesota faces a $1.6 billion funding gap for its highways over the next four years, which turns into $4 billion over eight years.
Officials would welcome increased investment to expand and improve other roadways, like Highway 212, which connects the metro area with western Minnesota; filling a Highway 23 gap in Stearns County; improving the I-94 and 494 interchange in Maple Grove; and other projects.
In many parts of the state, however, just getting funds to maintain existing infrastructure is a big enough task — leaving local officials to make tough choices. Jack Swanson, a commissioner of Roseau County, which sits along Minnesota’s border with Canada, says roads, broadband internet, and wastewater are in dire need of investment in his county, which he says is about as rural and remote as it gets in Minnesota. Only half of Roseau has access to high speed internet; Swanson estimates that the county has built fewer than 20 miles of new roads in the last 15 to 20 years.
“We are in, and have been, in a maintenance mode, taking care of what we have without any kinds of improvements on our roads,” he told MinnPost. “Small towns are going to need help with wastewater costs, in replacing city streets, sewer and water pipes and all that stuff. There comes an end of a life cycle for infrastructure, it may be time to start getting serious about replacement.”
Swanson said hopes ran high in Roseau County when Trump kept talking about investing a huge amount of money in infrastructure, and hopes that the president’s focus on improving rural America’s infrastructure wasn’t a “false promise.”
“What we would like to see in rural Minnesota is some real dollars that can be converted into real roads, real bridges, across-the-board broadband. … Those of us in a county of my size can’t afford to do this ourselves. It’s not financially possible.”
Long-term questions about funding remain
In the short term, Washington’s failure to deliver on a big-ticket infrastructure package means that there’s an even greater burden on states and local governments to meet infrastructure needs. It also means that there’s more pressure on Congress to make use of other funding avenues for infrastructure, like the annual appropriations process and must-pass items like the reauthorization of funding for the Federal Aviation Administration.
There’s already been progress there; the most recent federal appropriations bill increased infrastructure funding for Minnesota over what was laid out in the 2015 FAST Act, the last major infrastructure bill to come out of Congress.
The spending bill included $1.5 billion for the federal infrastructure grant program, once known as TIGER, along with $1.5 billion for federal Capital Investment Grants, which are slated to fund the Southwest LRT, and which were threatened with steep cuts in past White House budget proposals.
The Minnesota Transportation Alliance’s Donahoe said, however, “I think people do see that this idea of a big infrastructure bill at the federal level just isn’t happening, and states are going to have to take matters into their own hands.”
According to Alene Tchourumoff, the chair of the Metropolitan Council, which oversees infrastructure planning for the metro area, the lack of a big federal bill means officials back home are “maintaining the status quo.”
In Washington’s inaction, Tchourumoff and others are seeing signs of trouble down the road — namely, over inability to agree on a funding mechanism for the nation’s infrastructure.
“The challenge we face at the federal and state level is existing and new revenue,” she said. “I think it’s a challenge to say, ‘we can finance our way out of it.’ We do need some additional revenue.”
The U of M’s Zhao said the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan reveals that policymakers agree that infrastructure needs significant investment, but that they are far from figuring out how to fund it.
“To really address those problems, we need funding. That means real money, money through taxes and through fees, either today or in the future,” he said. “Political leaders are willing to invest, but they have not come up with a way to get the money.”
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have tried to come up with ways to get that funding, from expanding toll roads to raising the federal tax on gasoline, which has not been increased since 1993.
Second District GOP Rep. Jason Lewis, who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure panel, says he is open to making more out of so-called “user fees,” such as an increased gas tax, to pay for infrastructure, particularly after the passage of the GOP tax bill, which slashed corporate taxes.
On the Democratic side, 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison has plugged the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ infrastructure plan, which calls for a $2 trillion investment in infrastructure over 10 years, which would be funded partly through a tax on the transactions of Wall Street banks.
Trump, Ellison said, has “demonstrated he’s not serious. … What we need to have is a government-funded program to invest in roads, transit, water — all these things that are crumbling all around us.”
As Congress begins considering and debating appropriations legislation for the upcoming fiscal year, Lewis warned to not write off Congress’ ability to provide some, if not all, of the funding promised by the Trump administration in its ambitious infrastructure package.
“The administration wanted one big, shiny package,” Lewis said. “Let’s just see what happens before the end of the year on some of the things we can do. Will we get it all? Probably not, but it’ll be more than some people think.”