Will an Infrastructure Fix Really Happen?

The 5 Biggest Obstacles in the Way of a Final Bill

Thomas Mullen
February 28, 2018

Is an actual infrastructure bill the great promise -- or tease -- of 2018?

That's the question on the minds of millions of Americans as both Democrats and the Trump Administration this month unveiled plans to tackle the problem of our country's crumbling roads, bridges, airports and other critical systems. While the two proposals remain a long way apart philosophically--and are both notably short on details--the fact that actual numbers have replaced mere conjecture means there is at least movement on the playing field--a marked departure from last year when we could only guess what a potential infrastructure plan might look like. Of course, whether we are closer to getting the bulldozers moving remains to be seen.

The stalemate on this issue is most frustrating given the wide bipartisan support for addressing it. Throughout the 2016 election, infrastructure repair was one of the few issues claimed as a priority by both candidates, who repeatedly made it a hallmark of their stumps speeches and policy talks.

So is a funded infrastructure plan going to happen? Are the recent dueling infrastructure proposals really opening offers in the much-needed compromise many are hoping for? Or are they empty posturing, leaving us no closer to a solution? Below are five remaining obstacle that could determine the fate of a long-needed, but still languishing infrastructure bill.

Hangup #1: Federal Spending

The biggest fundamental difference between Trump's plan and the Democrats' is whether federal money will be the backbone of the spending outlined in an infrastructure bill, or the mere kindling that would spark a larger reliance on local money to fuel projects.

Earlier this month, President Trump released an infrastructure plan based on the kindling method. It proposes spinning $200 billion in federal money into projects worth $1.5 trillion via state and local funds. Half of these funds, $100 billion, would go directly to local governments as incentives to undertake infrastructure projects in whatever way those jurisdictions are able to make them happen. Another $50 billion would come as rural block grants given to states based on the number of roads and people located in remote areas there, while the rest of the money would be split between projects of "national significance" and other infrastructure-related efforts.

Democrats say Trump's plan simply falls far short of providing the money needed to rebuild America's infrastructure. Their proposal calls for a $1 trillion federal investment--five times the federal funds laid out in the Trump plan. Despite the bigger federal spend, they claim their plan would not add to the federal deficit--largely due to the resulting economic benefit of the proposal.

Hangup #2: Can Local Govs Pay More?

In order to turn $200 billion in federal money into $1.5 trillion in projects, Trump's plan calls for local governments to match federal dollars by at least a 4-to-1 margin. This would upturn the typical federal-local split on infrastructure projects, for which the federal government typically puts up 80 percent of the cost--down to a 50-50 split for mass transit projects.

Democratic critics of Trump's plan say the high burden it places on local governments would likely vastly reduce the number of projects they could undertake, which defeats the purpose of the bill in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration notes that state and local governments have shouldered more of the cost of infrastructure projects in recent years, and that their plan simply accelerates what is already an established trend.

Hangup #3: Public-Private Partnerships

Are public-private partnerships ready for their close-up? This strategy, which relies on government and corporate money, has become a critical way to creatively fund infrastructure projects, with success stories ranging from metro stops in Washington D.C. to high-occupancy highway toll lanes in Virginia and beyond.

While public-private partnerships have gained in popularity over the years, Trump's plan seems poised put them front and center in the infrastructure picture, betting that the federal money included in it will attract more significant infrastructure investment from companies.

And while Democrats have supported public-private partnerships in the past, critics of the Trump plan say the projects are not suitable as the central focus of an infrastructure plan. Complaints range from the claim that they give investors too much control over projects meant to benefit the public, and worry that they might bypass poor communities in favor of areas where they can produce a return.

Hangup #4: Environmental Protections

The environmental process is a key component of any large-scale public works project--whether via a federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as directed by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), or through an Environmental Assessment (EA) managed at the state level.

It ensures that a project's impact on its surrounding habitat is measured and mitigated, and accounts for public engagement through mandated public comment periods and request for comments for citizens to provide input on the proposal before it's carried out.

While Democrats have been keen to defend the environmental review process as it stands, Trump's plan calls for this process to be significantly expedited, with environmental reviews for major projects targeted to take no more than 21 months. It would also speed up the time it takes state to issue water permits, and give the secretary of the interior--not Congress--the authority to approve natural gas pipelines that pass through national parks.

Hangup #5: Hazy Numbers

While the above points of contention will need to be solved for an infrastructure bill to become a reality, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of this process remains the murkiness of the two proposals.

Trump's plan has left it to Congress to determine how to come up with the $200 billion it outlines, and provides little in the way of guidance or explanation of how it will tangibly create more than six times that amount in project funding.  

The Democrats' plan is no firmer on details beyond breaking the $1 trillion federal investment number into some general categories and predicting that it will create 16 million jobs.

To turn these dueling infrastructure roadmaps into an actual bill will take compromise, significant follow-through from both parties--and likely a lot more patience from everyone waiting for a resolution on one of the nation's most critical initiatives.