Connecting state and local government leaders
The proposal may not align perfectly with what many local officials are looking for. But they’re pleased to see it fueling further discussion in D.C. about infrastructure.
WASHINGTON — President Trump’s newly released infrastructure plan generated a mix of skepticism and enthusiasm this week among local government officials and advocacy groups.
Local leaders and policy experts also recognize that much of the action to come up with specifics for infrastructure legislation will happen in Congress. And that it’s an open question how closely any eventual bill, or bills, will match the White House outline.
Administration officials have stressed that the infrastructure blueprint is meant as a starting point for talks, not a take-it-or-leave-it offer.
“We’ll see what Congress does,” Matthew Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties said by phone this week, responding to a question about one of the plan's grant programs. “I'm not going to get too worked up over the initial proposal.”
“We're excited that the process is moving forward,” he also said.
Mayor Stephen Benjamin, of Columbia, South Carolina was among those who attended a White House meeting on Monday where Trump discussed infrastructure with state and local officials. He described the meeting as “the first step in a national discussion around infrastructure that we’ve been waiting on for over a year now.”
Irma Esparza Diggs, senior executive and director of federal advocacy with the National League of Cities echoed that view.
“We’re just excited about the fact that he has made this a priority,” she said, referring to the president and infrastructure. “Ultimately who we’re going to be working closely with is Congress.”
The Trump plan seeks to combine $200 billion of federal funding, with state, local and private dollars to drive at least $1.5 trillion of total infrastructure investment over 10 years. But how much more money state and local governments are willing and able to pony up is unclear.
“One of the things that I think is often misunderstood by the general public is that local and state governments already are making the primary investment in infrastructure, through municipal bond investments,” Elizabeth Kellar, director of public policy for the International City / County Management Association, said this week.
“To hope that there would be additional revenues available at the local and state level to invest more is going to be challenging to the say the least and unlikely, I think, in most cases," she added.
Critics have raised concerns that newly proposed grants in the president’s plan would shift more infrastructure costs from the federal level to states and localities. And some in the state and local arena are troubled by suggestions Trump administration officials have made that money for the package could come from cuts to existing programs.
"Federal money is not free," Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Tuesday during a White House press briefing. "Federal money comes from our communities, people, taxpayers."
"What we are trying to do is to recognize the states and localities, communities understand best what their infrastructure needs are, and to allow them to have much greater flexibility to decide their own projects, in conjunction and in partnership with the federal government," she added.
Erich Zimmermann is transportation director for the National Association of Regional Councils.
“It's a strange kind of devolution,” he said of the White House proposal during a meeting the association held this week.
“I don't see the decision making at the local level,” he added. “I see locals putting in more funding, and then having the decisions made for which projects that’s going to fund at the federal level.”
The Trump administration’s plan has also attracted scrutiny because it does not offer a pathway for shoring up funding in future years for the Highway Trust Fund, a primary federal account for roads and transit that has been weakened by declining fuel tax revenues.
Chao said Tuesday "the Highway Trust Fund does need to be addressed because, every year, more money goes out of it than receipts are received." But she also said that the administration wants to work with Congress on a fix. “We don't want to do it unilaterally,” she added.
A day later, Trump apparently endorsed a 25-cent gas tax increase during a meeting with lawmakers, Axios reported. This would help solve the financial problems with the Trust Fund. But key Republicans in Congress have been cool to the idea of hiking the tax.
“There's a clear message from our membership that it would really be the most helpful to have direct financial investment by the federal government and to fix the Highway Trust Fund,” Kellar said.
The president’s infrastructure plan is about more than just money. And some local officials did voice strong support this week for the administration’s goal of revising federal permitting and environmental reviews so that project approvals take no more than two years.
Bob Dallari, a commissioner in Seminole County, Florida, and the current president of the National Association of Regional Councils said during an interview Tuesday that there are “good, bad and ugly” elements in the White House proposal.
But when it comes to speeding up project approval times, Dallari is on board. “Some of the roads that I’m working on, they take eight to 10, 12 years,” he said. “The president is on point.”
Zimmermann, the NARC transportation director, said during his remarks at the meeting that it is evident “a lot of thought has gone into the streamlining provisions” in Trump’s plan.
He noted that Alex Herrgott, associate director for infrastructure for the White House Council on Environmental Quality played a role in crafting the provisions. Herrgott previously worked for Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who is the senior member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, one of the main Senate panels that oversees infrastructure issues.
“You don’t need an offset to pass a streamlining package," Zimmermann added, referring to a budget offset for spending. "So streamlining is a real possibility.”
“Streamlining” appears to fit with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s current priorities.
Grover Burthey, deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy at the department also spoke at the NARC meeting. He told an audience there that deregulation is of “critical importance” for the agency. “That is something that we live and breathe,” he said. “You'll see even more of that in 2018.”
Attempts at a major federal permitting overhaul for projects could easily veer into controversial terrain. Environmental and conservation advocates this week slammed Trump’s proposals.
Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, called the infrastructure plan “a scam to line the pockets of corporate polluters,” and added: “It fundamentally changes our bedrock environmental laws.”
On the same day the White House issued the infrastructure proposal, it also sent Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget request to Capitol Hill.
The spending plan does not flag specific cuts to pay for the White House infrastructure package.
But it does call for axing programs such as Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER grants, an Obama-era program that has supported projects ranging from highway upgrades to streetcar lines, and drastically scaling back the “New Starts” program, which has allotted billions of dollars for transit projects.
Diggs, with the National League of Cities, said the group would like to see lawmakers build on TIGER, New Starts and other existing infrastructure programs, like the Highway Trust Fund and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s state revolving funds, which help to finance water and wastewater projects.
“Those have to be part of any infrastructure conversation going forward, those dollars have to remain there at existing levels,” she said. “It would be a non-starter to eliminate those.”
Burthey, the DOT assistant secretary, stressed in his remarks that there is a distinction between the Trump administration budget proposals to chop existing programs and the infrastructure plan.
“I think that it has been confused, or interpreted as: 'you’re trying to take money from this pot over here and claim it’s new money,'” he said. “Let’s say there was no infrastructure proposal,” Burthey added. “We may have gotten rid of those programs either way.”
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.