Wear: Trump infrastructure dollars won’t stretch very far

Jan 26, 2018
President Donald Trump, shown earlier this month meeting with congressional leaders, has touted a $1.7 trillion infrastructure plan, but so far offered few specifics. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The Donald J. Trump Infrastructure Plan — he would like the capital letters, I suspect — somehow experienced a $700 billion growth spurt this past week.

Which would be impressive if the Plan were even a thing. After a year and a half of sporadic hype and promises of its impending birth, what the president now pegs at $1.7 trillion for many unspecific (but wonderful and badly needed) projects remains publicly only a six-page collection of “funding principles.”

And that part is public only because political website Axios recently published a leaked version of it.

The White House later declined to vouch for that dense (if mercifully brief) document, but allowed as how the president “looks forward to presenting our plan in the near future.” Stop me if you’ve heard that before.

Trump later told reporters that he would be discussing the infrastructure plan in his State of the Union speech Tuesday — not at length, I would guess — and that a fleshed-out plan would be released shortly thereafter. We’ll see.

But what we do know about it indicates the plan will be far less than it has been cracked up to be.

Start with the number, either the $1 trillion that TrumpWorld had been floating since before his 2016 election, or the $1.7 trillion now suddenly out there. All along, the administration has said that the plan would involve $200 billion at most in actual federal spending, and even that would be spread over 10 years.

READ: The Trump infrastructure plan, 2016 version

The rest, we have been told, would come from local and state governments and the private sector. The federal money, in other words, would be leveraged — a favorite word of those looking to create a multiplier of what they’re actually pledging to spend. The “funding principles” document said any federal grant under the plan “can’t exceed 20 percent of total project cost.”

So, what it really boils down to is $20 billion a year in added federal spending. Or at least we think it is added federal spending. Perhaps it will only be money reallocated from some other corner of the federal budget, especially given that the tax bill Trump signed into law just before Christmas will add an estimated $1 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. And those principles (again, from a leaked document of uncertain provenance and legitimacy) also include “disposition of federal real property” to raise some of the money.

Which property? Old warehouses? Military bases? Big Bend National Park? Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s parking spot at the Supreme Court building? The document doesn’t say.

So how much is $20 billion, in the scheme of things? The 2017-18 federal budget is $4.1 trillion, putting this added money for infrastructure at about half of 1 percent.

The federal highway trust fund, which distributes money for road, bridge and transit projects to the states (raised originally in states through gas and diesel taxes, mainly), will hand out $54 billion this year. So $20 billion on top of that would be pretty salty, right?

RELATED: The Texas Legislature, tolls and the Trump plan

Except that the Trump plan money (again, based on the principles document) would go not only to roads and transit, but also to airports, ports, inland waterways, flood control, water supply, drinking water facilities, hydropower, stormwater facilities and the cleanup of polluted lands. We have no idea at this point (or likely for quite some time) how much of that would go to each of those categories. Suffice it to say, transportation would almost certainly get only a small fraction of that $20 billion a year.

So, how does the Trump Plan compare in size with former President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan, a juxtaposition Trump almost surely would relish?

The final tab on that legislation, introduced and passed within a month of Obama taking office, was about $830 billion over a several-year period. I notice that Trump’s flashy new number is almost exactly twice that Obama figure. Probably just a coincidence.

Anyway, transportation got about $50 billion of the Obama stimulus. More than half of the $830 billion total went to instant tax breaks of various kinds, health care, education and added unemployment benefits. Remember, we were in a deep recession at the time, and the point was to inject cash into the system as well as create jobs.

So the Obama economic stimulus, most of which was spent (or forgiven in the form of those tax breaks) within the first five years, was four times larger than the Trump plan in terms of actual federal outlay. Remember, Trump, in saying $1 trillion or $1.7 trillion, to a great degree is rhetorically spending other people’s money.

COMMENTARY: Why Trump’s infrastructure plan is a hard sell for Texas

So, summing up, what we have here is a long-delayed and still-unreleased plan, of uncertain size, paid for mostly by entities other than Uncle Sam, going to an array of projects of totally unknown size and character. And, oh yeah, this would all have to be passed by a Congress riven by partisan discord, consumed by such long-unresolved issues as immigration and health care, and eager to knock off work by Aug. 1 so the members can go plead with voters to return them to office.

Oh, and that Robert Mueller investigation. That too.

And even if it were to become some sort of reality, the plan depends to a great degree on mixing government money with private sector funding on profit-making ventures. Sort of like, I dunno, tolls? That might be a problem here in Texas, it appears.

As a transportation reporter, I would like to think that this long-anticipated infrastructure plan is going to be a big deal in my policy neck of the woods.

Right now, though, it’s not any sort of deal.