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Posts from the Infrastructure Category

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4 Ways Trump’s Transportation Plan Is Ripe for Corruption

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As long as Trump doesn’t release his tax returns, divest from his assets, and put his wealth in a true blind trust, the public can have no confidence that federal infrastructure spending will be based on merit and not Trump’s personal financial interests. Photo: Kamoteus/Flickr

Donald Trump’s opaque personal finances and business entanglements around the globe raise the possibility of unprecedented corruption for a United States president. And transportation is one area where the risk of Trump using the powers of the presidency to enrich his family and reward cronies is especially high.

As a candidate, Trump outlined a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, consisting mainly of tax incentives and subsidized loans for private companies to build things like roads and water systems. Paul Krugman and Ron Klain have noted that this would confer huge subsidies to companies that don’t need them, for projects that would get built anyway. In other words, government handouts for contractors and financiers.

In the transportation realm, Trump’s plan would mean building lots of privately-financed toll roads, an arrangement rife with examples of costly blunders, bankruptcies, and conflicts of interest. Letting the Trump White House oversee a huge program of privatized toll road construction would open the door to corruption on a massive scale.

While the vast sums we spend on infrastructure have always been vulnerable to various forms of corruption, the potential for Trump to game the system goes far beyond typical “highway to nowhere” graft. Here’s a closer look at why.

1. Trump has not released his tax returns, and his assets are not in a true blind trust

Alone among modern presidents, Trump has not released his tax returns. The public has no way to tell exactly what Trump’s financial interests are and how far they extend. And because Trump and his children have not divested from the family’s assets and put their wealth under the control of a disinterested third party, or blind trust, they can continue to profit from decisions made by the vast federal government apparatus that Donald Trump will soon steer.

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Steve Bannon Would Love to Team Up With Chuck Schumer on Infrastructure

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Imagine all the Trump signs marking projects that get tax breaks from the infrastructure plan Steve Bannon is pushing for. Schumer photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls/Wikimedia Commons; Bannon photo: Don Irvine/Wikimedia Commons

We mentioned it briefly last week, but Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s comments to the Hollywood Reporter about infrastructure are worth a closer look. It helps explain why Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are making a grave mistake when they line up to help Trump implement this plan.

Bannon is the propagandist who entered the Trump campaign team after turning Breitbart into the world’s leading “news” source for white supremacists. In the Hollywood Reporter article, he refers to cities as “the metrosexual bubble” and lashes out at his enemies list, which includes “globalists,” liberals, elites, centrists, and Megyn Kelly.

Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan is the central piece of what Bannon calls his “economic nationalist” (read: white nationalist) agenda:

Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement. It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.

Policywise, Bannon seems to have no idea what he’s talking about. The references to “ship yards” and “iron works” don’t make much sense. We’re talking about a plan to build roads, water systems, and electrical grids.

There’s a good reason a propagandist wouldn’t want to talk about the actual infrastructure policy that Trump’s team has floated. The construction industry is at nearly full employment right now, and Trump’s plan won’t have much if any stimulative effect.

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AZ Rep Ruben Gallego to Dems: Don’t Enable Trump’s Infrastructure Surge

Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi may be ready to bend over backward to work with Donald Trump on “infrastructure,” but you can count Arizona Representative Ruben Gallego out.

Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego says Democrats must resist Trump's corrupt infrastructure plan. Photo: Wikipedia

Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego says Democrats must resist Trump’s infrastructure plan and the potential for corruption that it entails. Photo: Wikipedia

Trump has proposed spending $1 trillion on infrastructure. It’s barely even an outline at this point, but the preliminary plan is based on tax incentives and privatization schemes that could lead to a lot of new toll roads and would subsidize a lot of infrastructure that would get built anyway. Even industry reps like state DOTs and toll road groups have questioned the soundness of the proposal.

Trump’s opaque personal finances also open the door to massive corruption and cronyism via infrastructure spending.

And we haven’t even got to the fact that Trump is filling his White House with an assortment of white supremacists, authoritarians, and Islamophobes. Nevertheless, top Democrats like Pelosi and Schumer have already pledged to work with Trump on his infrastructure plan.

One person who must be thrilled with these leading Democrats is Trump’s chief advisor, Steve Bannon, the notorious white nationalist who ran Breitbart before joining the Trump campaign this summer. Bannon recently said the infrastructure plan would be “as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan Revolution” for “an economic nationalist movement.”

Thankfully, not every Democrat in Congress is ready to start enabling Trump by working with him under the broad heading of “infrastructure.”

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Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi Are Falling for Infrastructure Propaganda

Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have bought into an exaggerated narrative about America's infrastructure needs, and that is leading them to dangerous conclusions. NASA/Bill Ingalls, via <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Schumer_at_the_Intrepid_Museum.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a>; Pelosi photo: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nancy_Pelosi.jpeg">Wikimedia Commons</a>

Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have followed along with an exaggerated narrative about America’s infrastructure needs, and that is leading them to dangerous conclusions. Pelosi photo: Wikimedia Commons; Trump photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr; Schumer photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls, via Wikimedia Commons

We’re going to see a lot of stories about Donald Trump and infrastructure in the next few months, and this reporting will be heavily influenced by a message that has been honed and perfected by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It will be important to see through these arguments and view the Trump infrastructure plan with clear eyes.

Already, leading Congressional Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are failing to do that. They are saying they want to work with Trump on “infrastructure,” reflecting a common viewpoint that infrastructure is a bipartisan issue.

This situation is dangerous for several reasons, including the likelihood that the transportation components of Trump’s infrastructure plan will be heavily tilted toward roads, as well as the broader implications of handing Trump’s overtly bigoted and notoriously corrupt inner circle a large pool of new financial resources, which can be used to reward cronies and punish adversaries.

America does have very real infrastructure needs, and there’s a lot of truth to the general sentiment that things like roads, transit networks, and water systems are in need of repair. But these needs tend to arise as much from the way public agencies spend the funds at their disposal — allocating too much to road expansion, not enough to maintenance, for instance — as they do from a lack of funding.

Key to the view that Schumer and Pelosi espouse is the messaging of the American Society of Civil Engineers, whose infrastructure “Report Card” claims the U.S. needs to spend trillions of dollars more on infrastructure. The ASCE report card is widely repeated in media reports, and Hillary Clinton even linked to the document in her infrastructure platform.

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Democrats Who Embrace the Trump Infrastructure Plan Are Suckers

As painful as it is to deal with the reality of a Donald Trump presidency, if you think highways and sprawl are a terrible mistake, the time to mobilize is now.

Senator Chuck Schumer reportedly sees infrastructure as an area of collaboration with the Trump administration. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the first things on Trump’s agenda, after dismantling Obama’s social and environmental legacy to the greatest extent possible, is a huge round of infrastructure spending.

During his victory speech, Trump said, “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none.” And he has proposed $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, a truly staggering amount, equal to 20 years of typical federal spending on surface transportation.

The vague concept of “infrastructure” is an area that leading Democrats seem to consider fertile ground for collaboration with Trump. The day following the election, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she was hoping to “work together to quickly pass a robust infrastructure jobs bill.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly views infrastructure as a potential area of policy alignment with Trump. Both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio have said they can envision teaming up with Trump on infrastructure.

The New York Democrats have their eyes on building the trans-Hudson Gateway rail tunnel. But the vast majority of Trump’s plan would, in all likelihood, entail a road-building bonanza benefiting the construction and finance industries to the long-term detriment of the nation.

There is a school of thought which holds that Trump, born in Queens, will have an innate understanding of why transit matters. His transition site has a few glancing references to transit and rail.

But to expect enlightened transportation policy from the Trump administration is to ignore everything we know about the sources of his political power — rural areas and the suburbs — as well as the explicit policy ideas coming from his advisors and the Republican Party’s hostility to any transportation infrastructure that doesn’t move cars and trucks.

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The Problem With “Infrastructure Week”

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You may have noticed that it’s “Infrastructure Week” in America — a time where engineering and construction industry groups beat the drum for more money, using big numbers and images of collapsing bridges.

You can follow the dialogue on Twitter. It’s full of value-neutral statements like this one from Democratic members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure:

It’s hard to dispute the value of infrastructure, or that America’s transportation, water, sewer, and utility systems are generally in bad shape. But the big prescription that comes out of Infrastructure Week is not so much about making better infrastructure — it’s mainly about spending more money.

Infrastructure Week is brought to you by some of the largest engineering firms in the world. The coalition is broader than that, and includes some perspectives that emphasize quality and efficiency. But the driving force is the American Society of Civil Engineers, an organization with plenty of self-interest in bigger public construction budgets.

So it’s no wonder that the message from Infrastructure Week boils down to an orchestrated appeal for funds. It’s also not difficult to see why this message doesn’t get a lot people very excited: For more money, we can get a less defective version of what we’ve already got.

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BeltLine Visionary: It’s Time to Radically Reconceive Urban Infrastructure

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Photo: Atlanta BeltLine

Ryan Gravel was just a graduate student at Georgia Tech when he came up with the idea for the Atlanta BeltLine — a ring of parks, trails, and transit that would encircle the city, repurposing derelict space around abandoned train tracks.

Ryan Gravel, the visionary behind the Atlanta Beltline. Credit: Josh Meister

Ryan Gravel. Photo: Josh Meister

The first phases of trails and parks are now underway, and the Beltline has already catalyzed a wave of construction of walkable housing. Taxes from the development will help fund new transit routes. Broadly speaking, the BeltLine has inspired a model of walkable growth in one of America’s most sprawling regions.

In his recently published book, “Where We Want to Live,” Gravel says what’s happening in Atlanta with the BeltLine is part of a bigger shift: taking 20th century infrastructure and repurposing it for 21st century needs. Moreover, projects like the BeltLine provide a healthier model for infrastructure investment that is enduring, equitable, and creates the “places we want to live.”

Streetsblog recently spoke to Gravel about the BeltLine and his book. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our talk.

Can you explain the thesis of the book?

Projects like the BeltLine represent something much larger than the specific improvement that it’s making to the city. It’s part of a much larger cultural momentum that’s going to fundamentally change the way we build cities.

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The Highs and Lows of Hillary’s Bland Infrastructure Plan

We’re getting some insight into what White House transportation policy would look like in a Hillary Clinton administration, following the Democratic frontrunner’s release of a 5-year, $275 billion infrastructure plan yesterday. It’s not exactly a visionary plan, but despite its blandness it’s still likely to be DOA if Republicans retain control of Congress as expected.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Clinton’s “briefing” calls for $275 billion in infrastructure spending over five years, on top of the $250 billion transportation bill being finalized right now in Washington. Echoing the Obama administration she says the proposal will be paid for by the vague notion of “business tax reform” — not a gas tax increase or a fee on driving mileage.

The Clinton spending package is something of a grab bag of ideas for roads, transit, aviation, water, and internet infrastructure.

On the one hand, Clinton gestures toward reforming the way federal infrastructure dollars are spent, emphasizing “merit-based” project selection. This suggests the typical state DOT highway boondoggle would face greater scrutiny. She also recognizes the need to get more bang for the infrastructure buck, signals support for walking and biking infrastructure, and promises to target spending to address environmental degradation and social inequality. She devotes a paragraph to the need for more investment in transit, which she says is particularly important for low-income communities and communities of color.

Those are the good parts, sounding policy themes carried over from the Obama administration, whose TIGER program remains a rare example of what “merit-based” federal funding would look like.

On the other hand, the Clinton campaign repeats the Texas Transportation Institute’s talking point about how Americans waste 42 hours in traffic annually — a dubious claim used to beat the drum for more highway expansions. Clinton’s proposal does not contain a reference to “fix it first” policy — the idea that keeping existing roads in good shape should take precedence over building new ones. In fact, she wants to “fix and expand” roads and bridges, which sounds like business as usual — squandering billions on highway projects the nation doesn’t need.

There may be something for everyone in this plan, but there’s no consistent vision for a safe, equitable, sustainable transportation system.

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Confounded by Spike in U.S. Traffic Deaths and Injuries? Look Around

Why are so many people killed in traffic? Hmm, what could it be... Photo: Transportation for America/Flickr

Why are so many people killed in traffic? Hmm, what could it be… Photo: Transportation for America/Flickr

Traffic fatalities in the U.S. increased by 14 percent through June of this year compared to the first six months of 2014, and serious injuries jumped by 30 percent, according to the National Safety Council [PDF]. At the current rate, the group says, nationwide road deaths would top 40,000 for the first time since 2007.

The NSC announced Monday that, by its estimates, nearly 19,000 people died in traffic through June, and more than 2.2 million were seriously injured.

Fatalities rose in 34 states. Several states saw increases of 20 percent or more — fatalities were up 59 percent in Oregon, and between 26 and 29 percent in Georgia, Florida, and Minnesota. Not every state had six months of data, so in all likelihood the numbers are higher than what the NSC was able to report.

Deborah Hersman, president of NSC, told the AP the increases can’t be accounted for by vehicle miles traveled.

The nation’s driving steadily increased for 15 consecutive months through May, the Transportation Department said in July. Americans drove 1.26 trillion miles in the first five months of 2015, passing the previous record, 1.23 trillion, set in May 2007.

However, the cumulative increase in vehicle mileage this year through May is 3.4 percent, far less than the 14 percent increase in deaths, Hersman noted. Also, the estimated annual mileage death rate so far this year is 1.3 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, up from the preliminary 2014 rate of 1.2 deaths.

The AP cited higher speed limits and driver distraction as potential factors, and said the NSC reported earlier this year that 25 percent of all crashes in the U.S. involve cellphone use.

“For many years people have said, ‘If distraction is such a big issue, why don’t we see an increase in fatal crash numbers?’” said Hersman. “Well, we’re seeing increasing fatal crashes numbers, but I think it’s complicated to tease out what that is due to.”

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The State of American Infrastructure Spending in Four Charts

If you’ve checked the news on the subject of American transportation infrastructure lately, you’ve probably heard that the sky is falling. It’s true that Congress can’t get its act together and pass a decent transportation bill, but the amount of money that’s being spent isn’t the problem so much as the fact that we’re spending it on expanding highways instead of keeping the stuff we have in good shape.

A new report from the Congressional Budget Office adds some useful perspective on public infrastructure spending (federal, state, and local, including water infrastructure) since 1956 [PDF]. Here are four major takeaways.

Infrastructure Spending is Fairly Stable as a Share of GDP

Measured as a share of Gross Domestic Product, public infrastructure spending has been fairly stable throughout the last six decades at about 2.4 percent, reports the CBO. The most recent bump came in 2009 and 2010 because of the stimulus package, when it rose to 2.7 percent. It has declined somewhat since 2011.

Source: Congressional Budget Office

But Costs Have Climbed

Beginning in 2003, the cost of raw materials like concrete and asphalt increased more rapidly than the prices of other goods, the CBO reports. So if you factor in these specific costs, inflation-adjusted public infrastructure spending has declined about 9 percent since 2003 (the dark blue line).

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