If You Want to Know Trump’s Infrastructure Priorities, Focus on His Budget

Photo via Transportation for America
Photo via Transportation for America

Donald Trump’s big infrastructure plan is still more of a rumor than an actual plan, leading to widespread speculation about his transportation priorities. But we don’t have to wait for major new legislation to get a clear sense of what the White House thinks is important.

Later this week, the administration is expected to release its budget request, and that will reveal a lot about how Trump wants to spend infrastructure funds, writes Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America:

For months there’s been endless discussion of the President’s $1 trillion pledge to “build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.” And while industry groups scramble to divvy up funding or financing from a package that may or may not materialize, President Trump’s first real infrastructure effort should be considered his annual budget request with top-line numbers for transportation spending, which will tell us much about his priorities.

When the first look at that budget comes later this week, we’ll likely face the dissonance of a President rallying support for a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure at the same time he’s proposing billions in cuts to transportation investment to accompany his plan to increase defense spending by $54 billion.

While trade groups, members of Congress and local advocates are discussing what projects they want to include in this dream of a huge infrastructure package that may or may not come up later this year, they could see devastating cuts proposed for crucial transportation programs that fund smart transportation projects all across the country in less than 48 hours…

While many people — even staffers or elected reps on Capitol Hill — tend to think transportation spending decisions are determined by the long-term transportation bill that gets passed every few years, the money for new transit and rail projects still has to be appropriated by Congress each year through the budget process… 

Scores of local communities with well-conceived ready-to-go multimodal projects are eager to apply to the incredibly competitive TIGER grant program, and on average, winning TIGER projects brought at least three state or local dollars to the table for each federal dollar sought. There are transit projects all across the country that have already raised local or state funding and are literally just waiting on a check for capital dollars from the federal government to proceed, including “projects like Indianapolis’ Red Line bus rapid transit project which has already been promised more than $70 million in federal dollars to pair with nearly $20 million in local funds from an income tax increase that Indianapolis voters approved back in November at the ballot box,” as we noted last week.

USDOT has already promised over $6 billion to these shovel-ready transit construction projects that have local funding in hand and are ready to go. If this week’s budget does indeed cut (or even eliminate funding outright) for the New & Small Starts transit program which exists explicitly to help metro areas of all sizes build new transit systems, the projects in that pipeline could be immediately threatened, as will their promises of supporting economic development & improved mobility.

More recommended reading today: The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reports that the city is getting ready to install its first raised protected bike lane. Darin Givens says downtown Atlanta is failing to capitalize on what should be a walkable street grid. And Transport Providence posts a running argument with former mayor Joe Paolino, who wants to scrap sidewalk expansions and bus boarding islands and get rid of bike lanes during the winter.

  • war_on_hugs

    Great article and great point. For the sake of my own sanity, if nothing else, I’ll point out that budgets are as much of a political document than an actual policy proposal. There is a common (mis)conception that the government needs a budget to operate, or that the President’s budget has some force of law, but this isn’t the case. In the end it all depends on what Congress decides to actually appropriate. (Or, in cases like the Highway Trust Fund, what they authorize to be collected and distributed through other means.)

    So, while the White House produces a budget, as do the House and Senate Budget Committees, these are all just visions, and are often mostly aimed at mollifying different interests and groups. In terms of Trump and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, it seems clear that they’re going to borrow heavily from the Heritage Foundation’s budget proposals, which will look really good to the Trump/GOP base – more defense! Less for useless social programs!

    They know well that actually cutting transit/Amtrak sets up a huge battle on Capitol Hill – federal transit spending is not only crucial for localities nationwide, but it’s a rare favorite of both big business and organized labor (consistently supported by both the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, for example).

    It’s far from clear whether the Trump administration actually cares enough to wage this battle (for relatively minimal “gain” – a few billion annually at most). Especially, as the article notes, in the context of promises for a huge infrastructure package. GOP reps are going to be pretty pissed if they have to go home and defend why projects in their home state/district are going unfunded while infrastructure spending is ramped up everywhere else.

  • neroden

    Trump doesn’t write his own budgets; some Heritage Foundation lackey (Mulvaney?) wrote it and Trump didn’t even read it.

    Basically, treat it as DOA anyway; the President’s budget usually is DOA..

  • TakeFive

    lol, agreed.

    The other key point is that the Fast Act transportation bill was crafted in the Republican House and according to WIkipedia:

    The vote was 359-65 in the House of Representatives and 83-16 in the United States Senate

  • war_on_hugs

    That’s true insofar as it applies to the Highway Trust Fund (including the Mass Transit Account). However, there are transit/rail programs subject to annual appropriations, as well, which are not funded by the FAST Act.

  • TakeFive

    Thnx, I really don’t know all the ends and outs.

    I would note that one afterglow benefit of the ARRA is that more Republicans do support transit as an important piece of transportation.

  • cjstephens

    This is, what, the fourth? fifth? article speculating about what Trump will do with transportation policy, and of course it condemns the president’s actions before he has actually taken any. Ever heard of the boy who cried wolf? When he finally releases a plan, feel free to pick it apart, but until then, you look ridiculous, and you drag the world of transportation advocates down to the level of the Trump Derangement Syndrome that has made the left irrelevant.

    When you’re starting an article with “Donald Trump’s big infrastructure plan is still more of a rumor than an actual plan, leading to widespread speculation about his transportation priorities”, maybe that’s your first clue that you’re just adding to the rumors and the speculation. The rest is just a small step away from #fakenews. Streetsblog should be better than this.

  • RGD

    It would be financially quite stupid to run a government without a budget. But, your point is really quite valid about the President’s budget.