Six Reasons Why Trump's Infrastructure Plan Is in Trouble

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A Second Avenue Subway tunnel

In his address to Congress Tuesday night, President Trump vowed to ask Congress "to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure," including "new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways gleaming across our beautiful land."

But, so far, there's no there there. Over a dozen sources in government, Congress, construction and academia told WNYC — on condition of anonymity because they don't want to antagonize the President — that they don't expect any infrastructure plan, anytime soon. 

1. The details are slight to non-existent. In a one-hour address, Trump devoted 136 words to infrastructure.  In a five-bullet press release, the White House described its commitment to infrastructure as #1: spending $1 trillion on infrastructure, #2-4: building pipelines, and #5: cutting environmental and other regulations. 

2. Trump's initial plan to use tax-credit financing is creating dissonance among Republicans. A plan to create huge tax incentives for private capital to repatriate off-shore money legally by investing in infrastructure sounds like it would be attractive to Republicans. Wilbur Ross, now the commerce secretary, and then a Trump adviser, proposed that during the campaign. But Congressional Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, have made it clear that they want to use that money for tax cuts, instead.

3. Speaker Ryan has just spent eight years criticizing Obama's plans to spend directly on infrastructure.  When Trump made his infrastructure points on Tuesday, the blue-tied Ryan stood to applause. But every House Republican voted against President Obama's stimulus in 2009, and Republicans have been on a steady crusade to block infrastructure spending as wasteful. Opposing infrastructure spending was a key plank for the large GOP victory in November of 2010.

4. Public-Private partnerships won't save them either.  Infrastructure advocates, unions, construction companies, and, oh yes, Hillary Clinton, have all been huge fans of "PPP's," which use some combination of private capital and government resources to spur investment. But their usual requirement is a revenue-producing piece of infrastructure — bridges or roads with tolls, for instance. So that's unpopular, and directs capital towards denser areas of the country, not the red, rural areas that comprise Trump's base.

5. Speaker Ryan has other things on his to-do list. Republicans are still trying to come up with a plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Right now, we have no idea how long that could take. The federal spending bill runs out in April, so the House and Senate have to spend time on the budget. The Senate has to deal with a Supreme Court vacancy. And Speaker Ryan is putting tax reform ahead of infrastructure.

6. There isn't the staff in place to carry this out.  It's unclear whether the infrastructure plan would be guided by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Commerce Department or the White House. At the agencies, below the Secretary position, most of the high-level positions remain unfilled, and Trump's nominee for Deputy Commerce Secretary, Todd Ricketts, is running into problems divesting from his family's vast wealth. Government and construction sources say they are unsure who to approach, and unsure who is making decision.

On Monday, Trump spoke extemporaneously about infrastructure to a group of Governors. "Take a look at the Lincoln Tunnel and the Queens Midtown Tunnel," Trump said. "And you’re driving and you see all this loose material. It’s heavy. It used to be light. The problem is, you got to hold it up."

For the record, there are no longer any tiles in the Queens Midtown Tunnel and of the 4.3 million tiles in the Lincoln Tunnel, none has fallen on a motorist in modern history. But there's another tunnel in our area that is seriously ailing — the one that carries NJ Transit and Amtrak trains under the Hudson. According to Amtrak, that tunnel has seven years to live.

And despite the fact that Trump, his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner are very much in favor accelerating a new train tunnel under the Hudson, the Trump administration has yet to figure out how to do it.